Two cities, two tales of holiday lights

A tree is lit on Neil Street in Champaign on Tuesday. Erica Magda

A tree is lit on Neil Street in Champaign on Tuesday. Erica Magda

By Stephen Spector

Three years ago, Champaign Downtown Association raised money to be spent on holiday decorations. Nearly $40,000 later, downtown Champaign illuminates in the dark winter weather.

Holiday lights radiate downtown Champaign by outlining buildings and light poles.

“We choose lights based on what will be most aesthetically pleasing when they’re placed on the buildings,” said city planner T.J. Blakeman. “The city covers the electricity costs, and the garland on the light poles use energy efficient LED so they don’t draw excessive power.”

During the weekend before Thanksgiving, the Champaign Downtown Association gathered volunteers to set up the decorations. Blakeman said it took no more than three hours, and they’ll be taken down in mid-January.

“Every year they’ve looked great,” Champaign resident Liz Hawkins said. “The city always does a great job at it, and as someone who works downtown, I can’t complain.”

The holiday lights are programmed to turn on simultaneously with the street-lights they are fastened to. Besides for the hecklers that occasionally mess around with the 28-foot Christmas tree in One Main Plaza, Blakeman appreciates the spirit of the decorations.

“Every year we do it, and every year it’s a success,” Blakeman said.

In the 1980s, the colors of the rainbow shined the streets of Urbana’s business district. Today, those colors are nowhere to be found.

Originally, the city used red, green, orange and blue lights to adorn the city in holiday spirit. Now, the district glows with clear light.

“When we used the colored lights, the paint would wear off easily, and it got quiet annoying,” said Mike Perkins, electrical supervisor for the city of Urbana. “The clear lights are a lot easier and look great too.”

Unlike Champaign, Urbana’s electrical department coordinates the holiday lights. Setup is entirely manual, and Perkins said it takes about 20 hours.

“They are definitely festive,” said Urbana resident Carolyn Baxely. “They definitely help businesses bring in more customers.”

This year the city replaced the stringers and aerial cables that support the lights. Every year, the electricians go through each light to determine if they’re still usable.

“The lights will shut off automatically the day after New Years,” Perkins said. “So enjoy them while you can.”