Lights shows bring in crowds, help balance budgets

The two major holiday lights displays in the Midlands boost more than holiday spirits.

As visitors enjoy the twinkling spectacles at Lights Before Christmas at Riverbanks Zoo and Holiday Lights on the River at Saluda Shoals Park, they're also helping to balance budgets at two tax-funded organizations.

The zoo and the Irmo Chapin Recreation Commission cleared more than $100,000 from their lights displays last year.

With the wet, cold weather this December, numbers are down at the zoo and barely holding steady at Saluda Shoals, officials said. Heavy rain forced Riverbanks to cancel its lights show four nights this year, including last Friday. Only a dozen or so cars drove through Saluda Shoals during one rainy night just after Thanksgiving.

Both venues rebounded with crowds last Saturday. Saluda Shoals even set a one-night record with 1,224 cars, according to Lori Shaffer, marketing director for the recreation agency.

Both places hope to get last-minute gifts in the form of big crowds this week. Not to be too Scrooge-like, but the turnout is important to the bottom line.

Riverbanks cleared $139,957 in 2007 and $182,439 in 2008 from its Christmas event. Irmo Chapin's numbers after expenses were $86,574 in 2007 and $105,964 in 2008.

Both agencies say their numbers shouldn't be compared because of differences in how they account for expenses. Riverbanks draws 60,000 to 70,000 people to lights each year. Irmo Chapin charges by vehicle, drawing 13,200 cars last year.

Riverbanks began its Christmas event in 1987, copying a similar event at Jacksonville Zoo. It quickly turned what usually is a slow month at the zoo into one of the busiest months.

"Not only is (Lights Before Christmas) important financially, but it's also a way for the zoo to give back to the community," said Satch Krantz, executive director of the zoo. "We're not only this place that does important work with animals, we're also a place people can go to have fun."

Fee-based attractions - which include special events like the Christmas lights as well as the carousel and lorikeet feeding - produce nearly $1.5 million in annual revenue at the zoo.

Holiday Lights on the River is the new kid on the block, begun in 2003 and based in part on the successful holiday lights show at James Island County Park in Charleston. It was seen "as a means of showcasing the park for the public enjoyment during the holiday season as well as generate revenue to support the park's operation," said Elizabeth Taylor, executive director of the recreation agency.

Holiday Lights produced 22 percent of the Saluda Shoals Park revenue in 2008 and 2.82 percent of the revenue for the entire recreation agency. But its value encompasses much more.

"Our employees say it always gets them in the spirit of Christmas to work during lights," Taylor said. "They love hearing the people in the community thank them over and over for doing something like this."