By Mike Gregory
Bill Fitzpatrick had only just arrived 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.”
The 78-year-old former real estate investor moved to the sleepy mid-island town from big city Vancouver.
Fitzpatrick knew immediately he was the right person to get an event like Festival of Lights off the ground.
“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 and my vision and away we went. It was not an easy job to sell.”
The first Light Up was held in Bob Stewart Park 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 were I could see that this is definitely going to work and so it just kept on going.”
The annual event, now its 29th year, is now known across the island with thousands arriving on the third Thursday of each November to see the town decorated up upwards of 200,000 colourful lights.
Cowichan Valley Regional District’s Economic Development Division statistics show the retail sector is the largest employer at 28 per cent.
“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 manager Amy Melmock.
Destination BC market research shows retail and food spending from visitors to local events across the province to be about $56 per person.
Festival of Lights organizers estimate attendance was upwards of 16,000 people in 2015.
Building around the event, the Ladysmith Downtown Business Association will hold its Old Time Christmas, featuring horse and carriage rides and choirs, on the Friday following Light Up.
“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.
Mycroft said the downtown businesses inspire to create an atmosphere in Ladysmith during the holiday season.
“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 13 years ago, the 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.”