Annual Christmas lights display at Sunken Gardens falsl victim to Huntington's financial crisis

Huntington employee Larry Hayes unwinds lights from around a tree at Sunken Gardens on Thursday, Nov. 19. The Sunken Gardens Christmas display has been canceled as the city tries to work its way out of a budget crunch. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Sunken Gardens has gone to black.

What would have been the 27th annual Christmas light display has been canceled, a victim of Huntington's financial crisis.

"It's hard to justify putting these lights up when people are losing their jobs," says Denise Bard, superintendent of the Huntington Parks and Recreation Department.

A smaller light display, staged for the first time last year with the help of Huntington resident Chris Elston, will return to Memorial Park along Bartlett Street. That display, Bard says, costs about $100 to run, while the Sunken Gardens display costs about $5,000 for the season.

The smaller display is a drive-through show using LED lights, which are cheaper to operate, and is controlled by the computer, eliminating the need to pay overtime to staff. It will open Thursday, Dec. 3, and continue through Dec. 31, Bard says.

The cancellation of the Christmas light display is the latest move on the part of the city to make up for the loss of about $1.39 million in anticipated property tax revenue. The tax take declined in conjunction with a reduction in assessed values after appeals.

"We're trying to do our part, to be responsible to taxpayers," Bard says.

The park board initially planned to reduce the time the display was lighted, Bard says, but at its last meeting gave Bard the authorization to cancel the entire display if she thought it was necessary.

The money saved by cancelling the display will be returned to the city's general fund, Bard says, along with the money that would have been paid to two Park Department office positions that have been eliminated.
The first position, that of program director, was cut by the park board in August; a second position, office manager, was eliminated by Mayor Steve Updike early this month.

Bard says she plans to look for grants, sponsors, underwriters and other contributors to bring the Sunken Gardens lights back next year.

"I'm hoping this is just for one year," Bard says of the lack of lights. "I'm hoping that this doesn't become the new tradition."

It's too late to seek contributions for this year, she says. It takes three to four weeks to set up the display, and Park Department staffers have already dismantled this year's work.