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'First City of Lights' needs more donations: This year’s event is on, but future years in doubt

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BEMIDJI — The annual holiday light display known as the “First City of Lights” is headed for dire straits if a trend toward lower donation totals isn’t corrected, Chamber of Commerce officials say. This year’s event is funded, but the program could face cuts in future years.

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Lori Paris, the chamber’s president, said annual donations have been consistently coming in at about $15,000, but the display takes closer to $25,000 to produce. The city covers labor costs of installing the lights around the waterfront, but private donations have to fund installation downtown, the lights themselves and miscellaneous expenses.

She said the program’s budget had a surplus going into this year because technical problems last year prevented power from reaching many of the trees, so no lights were strung in them.

“Right now, we probably can pay for the balance of this year,” she said. “We only had to raise about $15,000 this year, because we had the surplus from the year before.”

The city fixed the issue over the summer, however, which Paris said is proving to be a mixed blessing.

“Basically, we will have utilized all our funds this year, so going forward we won’t have any cushion whatsoever,” she said. “If we don’t have the ability to raise $25,000 annually, we cannot put this project on.”

Paris said financial constraints have forced organizers to cut elements of the program in previous years, including sections of tree lightings and a fireworks show.

She said the display, which begins Nov. 29 and runs through January, helps Bemidji residents and visitors have a brighter holiday season in more than one sense.

“It’s two months of lightening up the darkest days of the year,” she said.

The Northwest Minnesota Foundation is the program’s fiscal agent, so those looking to make a tax-deductible donation to the First City of Lights can go to their website, Paris said.

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