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First City of Lights: Volunteers make 2010 event possible

Aaron Dufseth hangs Christmas lights Thursday morning in preparation of the Night We Light celebration at the Lake Bemidji waterfront. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

For the last 14 years on the Friday after Thanksgiving, the flip of a switch turns the Lake Bemidji waterfront and downtown into a glittering Christmas village.

The First City of Lights, also called the Night We Light, originated with the sister city relationship between Bemidji and St. Paul and the friendship between former Bemidji Mayor Doug Peterson and former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman. Peterson took St. Paul's holiday lighting idea and translated it to the First City on the Mississippi.

"We want to celebrate this event, the First City of lights," said Denise Koenigsberg, Downtown Development Authority president. "It's the 15th Year."

"This whole First City of Lights has been a Chamber-DDA cosponsored venture," said Lori Paris, Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce president.

However, she said, financial backing for the event has been sparse this year, and the winter tradition of November-January festive lighting could come to an end.

Starting with the fundraising campaign in April, the Chamber and DDA tried to raise $37,500 that would buy the lights, pay contractors to put them up and bring back the fireworks display. They actually raised $18,850, which would have covered about half the trees.

In the past, Paris said, the city of Bemidji has donated labor and boom trucks for the six-week job of stringing lights in waterfront trees. Because of tight budgets this year, the city could only give two weeks of labor for the project.

"This year, we had to find volunteer labor to put up the lights," said Koenigsberg.

Chamber and DDA members volunteered to unpack the lights to save workers' time. Convicts on Sentenced to Serve did some of the installation, but the bulk of the volunteer effort came from members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 294.

Matt Lavoie, who headed up the union effort, said Bemidji City Councilor Roger Hellquist approached the union members to see if they would be interested in helping out. With a boom truck on loan from Acme Rents, Lavoie said the brotherhood put in about 160 man hours to make the Night We Light a reality. Lavoie said the union members have also committed to taking the lights down next spring.

He the union members made wages wanted to continue their tradition of giving back to the community. For example, he said they have participated in the United Way of Bemidji Area Chili Cook-off and helped install a Bemidji State University scoreboard.

Paris said there was no guarantee they would be able to organize a volunteer team, let alone raise the funds for the lighting, in 2011.

"This truly could be the last," she said.

"The way we put this together we won't be able to reproduce next year," said Ken Cobb, DDA member.

"It's been piecemeal and a labor of love," Paris said.

Cobb said individuals and businesses contribute financially to the First City of Lights, but he would like to see more downtown business support.

"This is something you can donate to an enjoy yourself," said DDA member Richard De La Hunt.

Anyone who would like to contribute to the 2011 light show should go to or