After an extensive review of 2019’s Winter Lights Festival, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA) still believes that the festival, which was in its pilot year in 2019, is a better way to engage with the downtown business community and public around the holidays.
Gary Ferguson, executive director of the DIA, said that the new festival did draw an increased turnout over the past few years of its predecessor, the popular Ice Festival. While the Ice Festival had been largely based around the ice carving competition, followed by viewable ice sculptures around the Commons, the Winter Lights Festival was an extended series of mini-events, centered on the multi-color light towers positioned throughout the Commons.
While the DIA insists the event was a success, it’s obvious that some parties had expressed concerns; after all, the DIA had to issue and vote on a resolution that expressly stated its support for the event and its intentions to hold it in the future. Ferguson noted that some of the finer points of the festival didn’t work out, like an absence of music to accompany the light displays, and that some changes would be made to the festival going forward.
“I think the idea for this year’s  was to test out some ideas to see what worked and see what we wanted to double down on next year ,” Ferguson said. “We really liked the local stuff. I don’t know what we’ll do in terms of a national scale exhibit, again. We’re still open to that, but we’re thinking about that. I think we also knew that we would get a lot of positive vibes on the local pieces that were done, so I think we’d like to take that up a couple of notches.”
When assessing holiday festivals, Ferguson said the DIA is careful to avoid an event on the same scale as the Ithaca or Apple Harvest Festivals, where it can be difficult to maneuver around downtown. At the same time, though, he does want to ensure a holiday-based event would be organized in such a way that residents and businesses both enjoy it and benefit. He noted that the city had flirted with the thought of a Winter Lights Festival previously before opting for an ice-based event.
“We ended up going with ice at the time because no one else had done it,” Ferguson said. “It seemed kind of fun and interesting. I think we held back on the light because of a couple of things. One of them was, for light to work, it has got to be dark. So, there’s a bunch of times over the course of the day where you don’t necessarily see anything. This was one of the things that attracted us to this Prismatica exhibit; it was something you could, at one level, deal with day or night.”
Having the Prismatica exhibit allowed people coming downtown to not only interact with the lights of the festival, but the lights also worked any time of the day. This festival paired well with the annual Chowder Cook-off. There were different events that worked well and there were numerous events, such as the Silent Disco, that had larger crowds this year than were expected. For 2020, there will be another light festival with more emphasis on local displays and local artists getting involved. Ferguson added there will be more thought placed on the types of events that will be scattered throughout the Winter Lights Festival.
“Right now, we’re doing research,” Ferguson said. “We’re looking around at what other cities have done. We’re looking at what types of artists and organizations there are in our region. And over the next 30 to 60 days, we’re going to be putting together a pretty substantial game plan for how this is going to happen.”