Courier Staff Writer
While Holiday Nights ‘N Lights started out doing pretty good business, when the weather turned cold is when the event really began to shine.
“When it’s warm, people are home and have things they’re out doing,” said Terry McNitt, executive director of the Ottumwa Area Chamber of Commerce. “But once it’s cold and we get a little bit of snow on the ground, they jump in their cars and come down.”
And not just from Ottumwa, either. He said besides being fun and a fundraiser for area charities, the event brings in traffic from outside the area.
“The community has supported it, and now it’s becoming popular regionally. We’ve had folks in from 40 different counties in Iowa,” McNitt said, “seven or eight different states, and more people came through from Des Moines this year.”
It would be hard to determine how much business Ottumwa retailers gain from the high traffic. Last year, 16,000 people saw the display, and McNitt said Holiday Nights ‘N Lights is on track to do the same numbers or better this year. But if you want to be one of those people, he said, your last chance will be tonight and Friday.
What you’ll see, the chamber director said, is more of the bright LED lights this year, favorite displays from past years and different displays added in. And yes, he said, there’s still a little bit of snow surrounding the displays.
“People like the snow; it really makes the displays stand out,” said McNitt.
The chamber puts the event on each year in Ottumwa Park as part of the community betterment part of their mission. Local sponsors and volunteers keep the show running. The volunteers raise money for their favorite nonprofit in the area. The chamber gets some funds, which often go toward improving the holiday display or toward the Christmas decorations visible around Ottumwa.
“We’re actually working at it all year long,” McNitt said. “Right now, even before the event is over, we’re already looking at what we’re going to change out, what will get sent back and what we’ll keep for next year.”
They’re getting good at running the event, too. It takes less time to set up, requires fewer volunteers and hardly any equipment gets fried.
“It’s become a well-oiled machine,” McNitt said. “We’ve got volunteers who can do everything. The company comes down every year to program the light displays. This year, we have volunteers who did it. The lights were programed by engineers from John Deere and an Air Force veteran who’s an electronics expert.”
He thinks with the big attendance, the commercial operation that supplies the lights will want to continue the relationship, and support the chamber next year in recreating the winter wonderland. Instead of paying for their services up front, the business accepts a portion of the proceeds, as does the chamber and the charities that supply volunteers.
But while 16,000 attendees has to be pretty good in the ranking of events that draw people, said McNitt, there’s more to Holiday Nights ‘N Lights than just the numbers.
“I was out there on Christmas Eve. That giving spirit seemed to be everywhere. Some cars would say they wanted to pay for the car behind them. Sometimes, it was someone they didn’t know. The next car pulled up and I’d tell them, ‘The folks in front of you paid for your admission; they wanted you to have a good Christmas.’ That was kind of fun.”