Allegheny County pulls plug on holiday lights at Hartwood Acres

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Citing rising costs, tight finances and less sponsorship, Allegheny County is pulling the plug on the Celebration of Lights at Hartwood Acres this Christmas season.

"The event was getting costlier and costlier, and more and more of the expense was shifting over to the county," County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said today.

The county, which has a hiring freeze and has seen its fund balance for emergencies shrink to less than $6 million, is not in a position to cover any significant portion of the $1.5 million annual cost for the holiday-light spectacle, he said.

Adding to the financial pressures, the drive-through event's main sponsor last year, UPMC, had not made any commitment to continue its support this year, county spokeswoman Amie Downs said.

The Celebration of Lights has attracted tens of thousands of visitors each holiday season for the past 20 years and has raised almost $4 million for charities. The drive-through displays in the county park have featured more than 2 million lights.

"This is not a decision that we made lightly," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "The cost to operate the event has increased year after year, and unfortunately, sponsorships have declined. Last year, taxpayers had to cover most of the Celebration of Lights' $1.5 million cost.

"With the county's limited financial resources, it is just not something that we are able to continue offering."

The Celebration of Lights was begun in 1991 with 28 displays and 250,000 lights, according to the county. The most recent display -- with more than 2 million lights -- drew 170,000 visitors to the three-mile drive and generated $160,000 for charity.

The funds have benefited WTAE TV's Project Bundle UP and the Salvation Army.

"My administration is committed to doing anything we can do to help them offset that loss and we look forward to partnering with them to meet their mission of providing new winter outwear for disadvantaged children and seniors across Western Pennsylvania," Mr. Fitzgerald said.

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Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. First Published September 10, 2012 12:30 AM


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