The Festival of Lights kicked off its first season as an free-standing organization Friday night with the annual parade through downtown Hermiston to the Umatilla County Fairgrounds.

About 20 entrants took part in the parade, which has been growing in recent years, said Spike Piersol, co-chairman of the Festival of Lights Committee. This year, for the first time, the parade gave out cash prizes for first and second place.

Pioneer seed company took first place and the $200 prize. The company entered a light-bedecked piece of farm machinery, a sprayer. Relay for Life took second place and the $100 prize.

Piersol said he and the festival volunteers — new and old — this year experienced a steep learning curve standing up the newly independent organization .

“It’s been great, awesome to work with,”?said Pat Collins, a committee member taking donations at the fairgrounds gate Friday night.

This year was her first year volunteering. She said she came to the first committee meeting in May because she loves lighting up her Stanfield home during the holidays.

“Christmas is my thing,”?she said. “You should see my house.”

Learning to decorate the fairgrounds wasn’t that much different from decorating her home, she said.

Piersol estimated 50-60 volunteers have been helping out since September. November has been filled with weekend work parties getting all the lights set up and making sure each bulb is burning bright.

Though many fair board members and some fairground employees have volunteered, Piersol said the committee has taken full responsibility for the festival.

It began moving toward independence in 2010 when the fair board nearly pulled the plug because of a lack of funds. Donations racked up $12,000 to keep the festival going, and volunteers set up the large light displays at the fairgrounds. In May a committee took over planning this year’s festival, and raised another $12,000 to keep it glowing.

In September Piersol resigned from the fair board to help head the Festival of Lights Committee. Since then the committee has filed paperwork to become a nonprofit.

This year it rented Thompson Hall from the fairgrounds for $3,200 and is paying the power bill, which can range between $1,200 and $1,800 for the two-month festival.

Even so, the festival was only asking donations Friday night, not charging admission.

Once the committee has its first festival under its belt, Piersol said it will begin looking for funding other than donations. The nonprofit status should open doors to grants.

“It’s been really hard just because we’re all new at this,”?Piersol said.

Doing it themselves has given volunteers some room for creativity.

They avoided the rodeo grounds that sometimes turn into a mud hole during wet weather, Piersol said. Instead they brought other displays closer together.

Also, when volunteers learned the large white waterfall display needed to be replaced they decided to fill it with a rainbow of colored bulbs instead.

Now that all the setup is done, Piersol said organizing the volunteers to staff the festival on weekends between Thanksgiving and Dec. 23 is a piece of cake. He said there are usually five or six volunteers at the gate and four to six patrolling the fairgrounds for security.


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