Utility Department: The power behind the displays

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Forget all the beautiful pictures, adjective filled newspaper, magazine and television stories…If you want to really know what it takes to get the city ready for the spectacular Natchitoches Christmas Festival you’ve got to go to where it all starts. That’s the City of Natchitoches’ Utility Department. Without their expertise and efforts…there are no bright lights, displays or even turning on of the lights.

Three people at the center of it all for City Utilities Director are Lee McKinney, David Dodson and Sherry Edwards. Together they have over 50 years experience with the preparation for the Christmas Festival. The public usually sees the city crews getting things in place around the second week of September or right after the Fall Tour of Homes. However, before that they are actually designing and creating new pieces, restoring older pieces, or in the case of Sherry Edwards…attending training on the programming side of the movable pieces. There are new pieces added to the displays…but not every year. This year there is work on a new piece recognizing the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts and one for the Central Louisiana Technical and Community College. Currently there are 110 pieces the city is responsible for placing or keeping lit each year. They range from displays on I-49 to the 67 pieces along the Riverbank. In reality, the room for displays on the Riverbank has pretty much reached its capacity.

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There is an ongoing discussion about the current line up of displays and additions or deletions…but that’s a decision the Utility Department leaves to the powers at be. Once designed, a new piece can take anywhere from six or eight hours up to a week depending upon it’s details. This year the Utility Department is also re-working the manger scene on the Riverbank. It has been in place for the past 30 plus years. You would think it would take an army to get everything in place in just over, programed and working in about 60 days. The reality is that 18 members of the Utility Department do it all in house. They do this, in addition to their other assignments within the department. Traditionally, around the second week of October until right before Thanksgiving, they’ll put in 14 -hour days (7 a.m. until 9 p.m.) stringing lights, setting up displays and testing and re-testing everything. That’s because they won’t come down until the second week of January. One of the biggest issues the Utility Department faces is safety.

And it ‘s not from the actual wiring and electrical work with the displays. It’s from the driving public. There are a number of times streets have to be closed, or traffic detoured, to string the lights Crews try to follow the city’s traffic flow when working on certain streets. For example, they know the lights on Front Street, Church Street, the bridges and down Jefferson Street have to be done at night because of the heavy traffic volume. They have found the best time appears to be between 9 and 11 a.m. for most of their lighting work. The light stringing and displays have certainly become more high tech over the years. The lights have gone to LED bulbs, which are much more durable, instead of the incandescent glass bulbs used years ago.

This 30 year old manger display was refurbished this year.

Dodson still remembers the year of the incandescent bulbs when they got a bad batch and after the first rain, all the color was washed off the bulbs. They had to replace almost every one of the bulbs that year. In the early years, turning on the Christmas lights required someone actually flipping a switch. Not anymore, the lights as well as the movable displays are also programed so that they can be turned on remotely. Edwards says each movable piece has a MP3 box and SD card that can be activated remotely from anywhere. In addition to the challenges each year of getting things in place, McKinney has another challenge that’s always in the back of his mind. That’s the challenge of training the new Utility Department employees on the ins-and-outs of preparing and setting up for a Christmas Festival.