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PARD mulls admission options for Trail of Lights

Wednesday, May 27, 2009 by Austin Monitor

The Parks and Recreation Board on Tuesday discussed charging admission for the Trail of Lights and received a crash course from city staff on similar events held in other cities. Last week, the board learned that the free annual festival is costing the city more than $800,000.


Division Manager for Cultural Affairs Laura Esparza presented three options to the board. These included reducing the scale of the event, outsourcing components of it, and suspending the Trail of Lights Festival for the 2009-10 season. Notably, the options did not include charging for admission, though such an outcome seemed more likely by the end of the board’s discussion.


After studying ten “holiday lighting festivals,” which Esparza said were generally in smaller cities than Austin, it became clear that the local Trail of Lights is one of the largest and most costly in the country. Only Los Angeles had an event that was truly comparable, with half a million visits and a budget of nearly $750,000. Roughly 300,000 Austinites visited the trail in recent years, compared to an average attendance of 100,000 in the other cities studied. Additionally, most other similar events charge between $4-5 for family festivals and between $15-20 for drive-through festivals. Austin has also invested in making the Trail of Lights a “green” event, by keeping it for pedestrians and planning to move towards energy-saving LED lights.


Last year it cost $1,037,644 to put the festival on, with $384,000 coming from PARD’s annual budget and another $390,000 being spent on staff time. Austin Energy, Solid Waste Services, Austin PD and EMS also combine to spend another $113,000, and Capital Metro contributes $150,000 in bus rides and transportation expenses. The revenue that the Trail of Lights brings in– nearly $400,000 — does not directly fund the festival.


As PARD looks to trim $1.4 million from its annual budget, Mayor-elect Lee Leffingwell said, “The Trail of Lights has to be considered low-hanging fruit when you talk about closing libraries” and curtailing other services. He added that the city will be forced to re-evaluate all such programs.


Esparza said reducing the scale would preserve the Zilker Tree, Yule Log, Santa’s House and concessions. It would transform the lights to a four-week-long presentation in trees along Barton Springs Road, and retain only four “Family Festival Nights,” which currently run 13 nights. Esparza estimated a budget of $120,000 for this option.


Outsourcing components of the Trail of Lights would mean that jobs currently performed by PARD staff could be hired out to temporary workers. This would mainly entail carpenters and setup crews, but could also incorporate a more substantive volunteer recruitment effort. Esparza said many of the other cities outsourced significant portions of their event. Currently 75 city staff work at the Trail of Lights each night, Esparza said


Esparza also offered one final option: canceling the event, and keeping only the Zilker Tree and the lighting ceremony. Staff would then use the down time to develop another model for the festival, perhaps one with outsourcing.


Board Member Jane Rivera was skeptical that a drive-through option would be a good fit, citing the increased traffic along Barton Springs Road and the incompatibility with a “green” event.


Board Member Danette Chimenti said she hated the option of not having a Trail of Lights and wondered about a minimal fee in order to keep the event “unless we can find a way to outsource some of it or get some more money from our sponsors.” Esparza said that the idea of charging for the event was “something we’d like input on.” Chimenti suggested the admission option “remain in our back pocket.” 


Parks Director Sara Hensley said “I don’t think we’ll want to go back to driving through the park because environmentally it’s just not sensitive at all and we’ve made a commitment to not only have people walk but to switch from the regular lights…to more environmentally sensitive ones.”


Board Members riffed on pricing ideas for some time. Sara Marler suggested a cap per family on admission while Board Member Marilyn Bostick was concerned that the price of admission remains low enough “that people would have the dignity to be able to afford it.”


Linda Guerrero suggested a festival-style pricing, with single days and multiple day packages. “I do think we’re going to have to go to a fee, I don’t see that we have many options at this point,” she said.


Mark Vane said that pricing instituted this year should be maintained in the future, while Hensley suggested a price of $1 per person.


City Council will be the next body to discuss the fate of the Trail of Lights, and there will be town halls scheduled in June for citizens to give their input.

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