Main Street Columbus Executive Director Barbara Bigelow has been wanting to light up downtown for a few years now.
She had driven through other towns throughout Mississippi, Alabama and Texas, where she has family, in which lights along downtown commercial buildings lit up the skyline, and she wanted to bring something like that to Columbus.
“The downtown just illuminates,” she said. “It looks so nice, and it brings an energy into the downtown area when you see them. It kind of excites you.”
Now that plan could become a reality. Bigelow met last month with Columbus Visitors Bureau Executive Director Nancy Carpenter, Columbus Light and Water General Manager Todd Gale and Columbus Mayor Robert Smith to plan a $15,000 project to string about 2,500 feet of lights along Main Street buildings to light up during holidays and special occasions.
“I don’t think it’s just a winter look,” Carpenter said. “I think in the spring, when we’ve got a major event going on, the Fourth of July, something great for (Mississippi University for Women), for Columbus Air Force Base, we’d look forward to turning on the lights.”
Initially, Carpenter said, the lights will be strung for two blocks along both sides of Main Street — from Catfish Alley on Fourth Street to City Hall on the north side of Main and The Dispatch building on the south side.
The cost will be covered by private donations from area businesses, residents and organizations. Gale said CLW will provide the labor to set up the lights. The brunt of the cost will go toward equipment, including the lights themselves — large white LED bulbs — and specially designed metal brackets to be placed along building rooftops to hold them.
“It’s going to be a line of lights that will follow the tops of the building (following) the features of the building,” he said, adding the brackets would be placed about every foot along the building facades.
Once installed, the costs of usage would be minimal and would be included with streetlights, he said.
Bigelow and Carpenter have sent letters to the business and building owners asking them to sign waivers allowing CLW to install the lights. Both said the reactions they’ve received so far have been positive.
Smith said city officials are excited about the project and the partnership with CVB, CLW and Main Street.
“This project will bring our downtown area into a favorable view and can be used not only at Christmas, but at special times throughout the year,” he said in a prepared statement. “I also encourage our downtown businesses to support this project. Just as our Christmas Tree lighting is a vital part of Columbus, I look forward to the time when these lights are also part of Columbus.”
Carpenter said anyone wishing to donate can make checks out to Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation and mail them to CCHF at P.O. Box 789, Columbus, MS 39703.
Adding a spark
The downtown Columbus project is part of a larger trend in lighting projects for cities throughout the country. While large metropolitan areas like New York and Las Vegas have had lights on their buildings for decades, smaller towns in the South are increasingly doing the same, Bigelow and Carpenter said.
Starkville has had lights along its Main Street buildings for several years, said Mike Tagert, president and CEO for the Greater Starkville Development Partnership. He said the lights, which stay on all year round, were possible due to the close working relationships between the city of Starkville, the Partnership and downtown businesses.
“It provides additional … safe options for people, from the downtown shopping foot traffic to public dining,” Target said. “So anything that you can do that improves the aesthetics of downtown is only going to enhance the economy downtown.”
Carpenter said that in planning Columbus’ project, she, Bigelow and Gale reached out to Christy Burns, executive director for Corinth Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, who helped implement a project to light up Corinth’s downtown in 2018.
Burns said she received help from Main Street Corinth, the city’s fire and utility departments and volunteers to string 5,000 lights along downtown buildings to accentuate the city skyline during the holiday season. Earlier this year, they added another 4,000 lights.
“The intent was to draw people downtown to enjoy the holiday season,” Burns said. “This year we added more lights just because I think everybody needed something extra special this year. We did several churches that have just not straight rooftops, they have a lot of peaks and it looks really cool, so we took that on. … People walk around and enjoy the lights. … It really makes the holiday season kind of special.”
Bigelow said she hopes to bring the benefits of projects like that of Corinth and Starkville to Columbus.
“It’s just exciting,” Bigelow said, adding it would also make downtown sidewalks safer for pedestrians. “It just adds a real spark, I think. Not that our downtown doesn’t have a lot of spark already. I love our downtown, but this will just be an added attraction.”
While Gale said he’s not sure what the timeline is for the project — some of the equipment has already been ordered, but not all businesses have given their permission yet — he estimates it will only take about two weeks to install the lights. Carpenter said optimistically she hopes to have them up by Christmas, but said it could be closer to January.
She added if the initial phase of the project is successful, she would like to expand it and add more lights throughout downtown.
“We can raise the money. I know that we can,” Carpenter said. “There are so many people that have already said, ‘Look, I’m on board.’ There’s no donation that is too small or too large for us to accept.”
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