OPINION: CITY MANAGER ASKS CHAMBER TO TAKE OVER MANAGEMENT OF WONDERLAND OF LIGHTS
By Ron Munden -- June 27, 2018
I am siting the historical dates included in this article from memory. They may be off by a year or two but that does impact my opinion in any way.
EastTexasExposed.com has verified that in the last month City Manager Jack Redmon has discussed transferring management of Wonderland of Lights from the City to the Chamber with Chamber Director Stormy Nickerson.
I commend the City Manager for taking this action since festival management is not a core function of the City and historically the City has not been directly involved in the management of Wonderland of Lights.
Wonderland of Lights was born in 1982 – the brainchild of Marshall News Messenger Publisher George Smith. The festival was managed by volunteers with heavy citizen involvement. In 1985 I was living in California but returned to Marshall for Christmas – the first time in 20 years.
I was very impressed with WOL. The decoration of the Square was very nice; the decorations on the neighbors’ homes were outstanding. This was something that Marshall could be proud of.
Wonderland was born as a volunteer-driven organization and was managed using a 501c3 structure. When I arrived back in Marshall in 2001, Wonderland was managed by Marshall Festivals. Marshall Festivals was criticized by many people, including me. I now realize how wrong I was. I now know Marshall Festivals did an outstanding job considering what they had to work with and the changes in society since WOL inception in 1982.
WOL was operated as a standalone 501c3 for 28 years. In retrospect, this was the best way to manage the festival.
In 2010, the Brand Development Committee/Convention and Visitors Bureau, under the direction of the Brand Manager John Arrend, staged a hostile takeover of WOL . Mr. Arrend’s pitch was that the BDC/CVB had the money to make Wonderland of Lights great again.
Taking over WOL was a fatal mistake by the BDC/CVB. They threw lots of money at WOL but were unable to make it profitable. In fact, the BDC/CVB lost between $200,000 and $300,000 on Wonderland each year they operated the festival. By 2015 the 501c3 CVB was insolvent. The organization was disbanded, and the City moved the Convention and Visitors function and WOL directly under the City.
So the City has only managed the festival three of the 30+ years the festival has been in existence. Unfortunately City management of WOL has been no more or less successful than the CVB. They have only done a better job of hiding the expenses.
It is hard to win races with a dead horse.
I commend Mr. Redmon for looking for a way to transfer the management of WOL from the City since it is not a core function of the City.
I also commend the Chamber for saying “no.”
The Chamber is a membership organization and their primary focus should be helping their members. In the past the Chamber has been involved in too many activities that were well outside of its core function. In the past few years the Chamber has moved in a new direction. The Chamber is moving in the right direction. Taking over management of WOL would divert the Chamber from its core functions. A bad move.
In my opinion, the City should also not manage WOL either. It spends too many resources on this non-core function. That is not fair to Marshall’s citizens.
So, if neither the City or the Chamber should manage the festival, what do we do?
First, you get a show of hands of all the people that think WOL could continue. Next you ask those people who are holding their hands up to continue holding them up if they willing to commit to volunteering to work on the festival. If most of the people drop their hand then you cancel the festival.
If most of the people continue to hold their hands up then you establish a 501c3 organization comprised mainly of volunteers. You might call it Marshall Festivals.
Several years ago, George Smith said that the key to making WOL viable again was to develop a robust volunteer program. In my conversation with Ms. Nickerson she said that while the Chamber was not in a position to manage the festival, the members were very willing to continuing volunteering.
It is time for those that strongly believe WOL is a good thing for the community to step forward and drive the train -- the Wondrland of Lights train.