Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Light Bulbs of the Oligarchs II

Dan Coody did not start the light bulb festival; neither has he provided the leadership to take control of the event or to manage its operation, its costs, and its massive waste of energy. The Chamber of Cowbirds is still in control, and the taxpayers are still stuck with the tab for the Chamber’s follies.

What began as a scam to sell 200,000 light bulbs to the city in 1993 quickly grew into what promoters claimed were more than a million light bulbs by 2002 during Coody’s first term. His tax-supported Advertising and Promotion Commission said the light bulb display was a way to increase tourism during the winter months. That was the year that the city picked up the expense of the Chamber’s Visitors Bureau by creating the Fayetteville Convention and Visitors Bureau, but the operation stayed in the Chamber offices. Former Mayor Marilyn Johnson Heifner, who worked for the Chamber, became the executive director of the Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission. It was a cosy deal and taxpayer funding for personnel and tasks that used to be done by the Chamber.

In 2004, the Fayetteville Chamber of Cowbirds moved the start of the light bulb festival to the Saturday before Thanksgiving to see if they could get a head start on the holiday shopping season. The opening festivities included a hair products company handing out free samples, a vendor selling portraits during the ceremony, and a vendor selling glowing decorations. Gene Higgins of Fayetteville said, "It's actually pretty weak. They should be selling food and crafts and things." Donna Hughes of Fayetteville also said she would like to see the festival have more of a commercial element. "If it's for kids, they ought to have stuff for kids and then they could use that money to pay for more things instead of using our tax dollars." That year, the city Parks and Recreation employees were diverted to put up the light bulbs and paid another $5,000 for an additional 50,000 light bulbs.

For the 2006 event last year, Shelly Stewman, tourism sales manager at the Fayetteville Convention and Visitors Bureau, shared interns with the Chamber to accomplish their shared goals. "We discussed how to use an event as a marketing tool," Stewman said, for example, a business new to Fayetteville introduced itself through participating in the parade. Boy! The city also laid out cash to buy a bunch of colored light bulbs last year. They seemed to be a big hit with shoppers coming from out of town, so the city decided to junk them and buy more white light bulbs this year, said Jeff Coles of the Parks and Recreation department.

This year, the City will assign employees to work approximately 2,000 hours on the light bulb deal and pay all the electricity. Two thousand hours is 50 employees working a 40-hour week. In addition to the regular commercial emphasis, the Convention and Visitors Bureau is offering a mass wedding ceremony on December 6, like those Moonie deals or Huckabee’s mass wedding event in Alltel Arena. The promotional theme this year is “A Razorback® Holiday.” You probably thought it was Christmas.

The Chamber is a private group and can do whatever it wants, but they should do it on their own dime. Mayor Coody won’t cut them off from public funding, but at least he could stop spending general revenues on the light bulb scam and pay for it out of the budget of the Advertising and Promotion Commission that is funded by the sales tax on hamburgers. The Chamber of Cowbirds could still take all the credit for the light bulbs as they do on the local website and the state tourism website.

Coody could also get serious about his local action plan for saving energy and reducing the city’s $2 million annual energy budget. Instead of paying a guy to tell employees to turn off the lights when they leave the office, he could pull the plug on a million light bulbs burning 24/7 for six weeks to keep the Chamber happy. That won’t happen either. As Marilyn Heifner once said, "You can't just do something and walk away from it. It takes a continual feeding to feed that monster." They’ll send you the bill.

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