Ladysmith turns on the lights for thousands with the Festival of Lights

How one bright idea turned into Vancouver Island’s signature Christmas event

  • Nov. 24, 2016 8:00 p.m.

Mike Gregory Ladysmith Chronicle

Bill Fitzpatrick had only just arrived in Ladysmith in the mid 1980s when he struck the idea that the town needed an attraction to promote its small businesses.

“I could see that the businesses weren’t doing as well as they could,” he said. “My catalyst was to provide that power, that draw.”

By any measure, he was successful. An estimated 15,000 people will cram the main street of Ladysmith tonight for the 29th-annual Festival of Lights. It has become the Island’s signature holiday season event — a far cry from what Fitzpatrick, a 78-year-old former real estate investor recalls of its humble beginnings

“I went downtown and it was around Christmas time and I looked at this pitiful display of lights from one building to another and that was it,” said  Fitzpatrick, also a former president of the Ladysmith Chamber of Commerce. “I got some people who believed in my vision and away we went. It was not an easy job to sell.”

The first Light Up was held in 1987 and the committee of five organizers knew immediately they had the makings of a successful event.

“I was the one that threw the switch and I just listened to the crowd and they were clapping and just really excited,” Fitzpatrick said. “That was first moment really where I could see that this is definitely going to work and so it just kept on going.”

The annual event, arriving on the final Thursday of each November, draws visitors from across the Island to see the town turn on upwards of 200,000 colourful lights, then welcome in the season with a fireworks display and a colourful holiday parade.

In addition to kicking off the holiday season, it has also met Fitzpatrick’s original goal of being an economic driver.

“It’s a very important festival both from a community pride point of view but also as something as we can look to in the region that’s attracting people throughout the holiday period,” said Cowichan Valley Regional District economic development manager Amy Melmock.

Festival of Lights organizers estimate attendance was upwards of 16,000 people in 2015. Building around the energy of this event, the Ladysmith Downtown Business Association follows up eight days later with the more laid-back Old Time Christmas, featuring horse and carriage rides and choirs. And the lights stay on for more than a month, attracting visitors to the sparkle throughout the holiday season.

“Light Up is a springboard into the whole six week period. It generates excitement and people get into the spirit,” said the LDBA’s president Paul Mycroft. “The lights become a real bonus for bringing people in during a quiet period when,  if it wasn’t happening, we’d struggle through the Christmas period.”

Ladysmith Chamber of Commerce president Mark Drysdale agrees that the exposure for Ladysmith as a result of the festival stretches as far as the mainland.

“Even if there’s not a direct economic impact on the night of Light Up, the fact that people become aware of Ladysmith through the event, there’s economic spin off of that down the road.”

Since opening their shop 13 years ago, owners Kamal and Therese Saab of the Worldly Gourmet Kitchen Store on 1st Avenue have been big supporters of the festival.

“Our focus on that day is to project to the people that there is a dedicated gourmet kitchen store in Ladysmith,” Kamal said. Worldly Gourmet has found Google and Facebook analytics improve annually as a result of exposure from Light Up.

“It’s super beneficial to us,” Kamal said, adding that 90 per cent of customers are from out of town.

“We get business for two or three weeks following.”

Fitzpatrick said he’s elated that festival continues to be a growing success  and gives credit to the volunteers.

“Ladysmith is a wonderful town for support,” he said.

“We’re a small town but that doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t think big.”

For information on the festivities, click here.

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