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WAMC News Series: After 25 years, Albany’s Holiday Lights in the Park will soon dim

For a quarter century, Albany's Washington Park has been home to the Capital Holiday Lights display. This is the last year the event will appear there. And in the latest story in our weeklong series on holiday traditions, WAMC's Capital Region Bureau Chief Dave Lucas found out many locals are heading to the park for one last look.

“So a lot of things have changed that have added to the complexity and the challenges associated with having Lights in the Park in this historic park...”

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan says the Capital Region tradition where cars snake through the park, taking in displays, has gotten so big and popular over recent years it raised neighbors’ concerns about traffic and air pollution, thus, it is time for it to leave.

Outgoing Common Councilor Richard Conti represents the 6th ward:

"Policy here in the city of Albany has decidedly emphasized environmental sustainability, care of our urban green spaces, pedestrian accessibility, and efforts to reduce traffic and traffic congestion," Conti said. "Just as this event has outgrown its current venue, is focused on bringing auto traffic into an urban green space in a densely populated urban area, just clashes with those policy directions.”

On a recent evening, Heather Lear and family drove up from Hudson in Columbia County to take in the lights .

"I hope that they find a new spot, because we do come every year. It would be nice to be able to keep coming," Lear said.

The Police Athletic League, which sponsors the event, has been looking for a new location for 2022.

Common Councilor Owusu Anane's 10th ward is a short walk away from the park. He set off a social media firestorm when he claimed “cancel culture” had ended the annual tradition.

“This is an organization that service, over 4,000 families in the city of Albany," Anane said. "And there are individuals and nearby residents who have had some issue with the lights in the park. Instead of come up with coming up with a compromise, they lobbied City Hall and they were victorious. Quite frankly, when I think about the 4,000 families that are going to be adversely impact because of the lack of funding from this event, it is something that I cannot just sit idle and let go. At the end of the day the cancellation of this event means that a large chunk of revenue from Albany Police Athletic League is now in flux.”

PAL Executive Director Lenny Ricchiuti says the organization is looking forward to finding a new home.

"Right now we're focused on this year’s show and making sure the experience is the best that we can do, again, with the circumstances, you know, with the, with COVID lingering effects, as well as the different strains that keep popping up," said Ricchiuti. "You know, it has limited our ability as to what we can do, and we have had some staffing issues as far as folks who are returning to work, etc. But we're managing to get through it. And the experience that we're hearing from folks, they are very excited and pleased that we are there and they're visiting and they're coming in enjoying the lights."

Kellie Mueller, from Stephentown in Rensselaer County, says the lights are a family tradition.

"I've got grown kids in the car, so it was kind of a cool night to get them all together. My daughter's here from Colorado," Mueller said.

Joe Bonilla is with Public Relations firm Relentless Awareness. He thinks the Lights could have remained in the park, andpublished an essay outlining a variety of possibilities for the future of the show.

"My suggestion, having worked a lot of events, knowing the ins and outs of what goes into making events successful, you look at obviously reducing the impact it would have on the park, primarily reducing the number of private vehicles in the park, make it much more of a community endeavor and affair, and certainly making it part of what, you know, people would expect in terms of a customer experience in 2021," Bonilla said. "And you look at partnering with private event companies."

Anane thinks PAL and the Lights weren't given a fair shake.

"And these times that we're in, particularly the mistrust between law enforcement and communities of color, the Police Athletic League is there to bridge that gap, to put young people in direct contact with law enforcement, which I think is a step in the right direction," said Anane. "The bottom line is, by canceling this event with no plan to effectively assist PAL to make up for the loss of fundraiser, we are effectively saying to our city's youth, that we don't care if these programs and even though our kids need them now more than ever.”

Mayor Sheehan says it is clear that the park has been overrun by the Lights, and PAL must find a new location.

"This is not a city-run event, this is not a city-sponsored event," Sheehan said. "This is an event that benefits one not-for-profit and takes over the park for a three-month period, restricting the use and access to the park of our residents. And we realize that there's people across the region who love Lights in the park, it's become part of their holiday tradition, but we also need to recognize that the residents of our city have taken on a huge burden with this, and it's time to find a different location."

Lights in the Park runs through January 2nd.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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