Each month when writing A View to the Past, I aim to delve into the history of a local historical hotspot or attraction to inform and inspire Airdronians to learn more about the place they call home.
In light of the holiday season, I reached out to Michelle Pirzek, coordinator of the Airdrie Festival of Lights (AFOL), to learn more about the history of the yearly attraction that boasts approximately 1,000 festive-coloured light displays in Nose Creek Regional Park every December. What I learned was pretty cool.
The volunteer-based walk-through light experience was founded by former City councillor (then called alderman) Stan Softley in 1996. This year, the festival is celebrating its 26th year of holiday-themed family fun, drawing the attention of those near and far.
According to Pirzek, the timing of my inquest could not have been better, as just this month she had the privilege of meeting Softley and his family during an evening at the Airdrie Festival of Lights.
She said she had been approached by Softley’s daughter one night at the attraction.
“I went out to my truck to get something to close for the evening and a woman walked up to me and she said, ‘I’m Stan Softley’s daughter and we wanted to come down to the park and take a look, and we can’t believe it’s still running,’” Pirzek said.
Though Softley himself was not in attendance, his daughter had been giving him a tour of the light displays via Facetime on her cell phone.
“I got to have a lovely 20-minute conversation with [Softley] and everything that I’ve been saying for the last 20 years is 100 per cent accurate – he recounted each of the stories for me again,” Pirzek said.
Softley recalled his original vision to transform Nose Creek Regional Park into a beloved local outdoor Christmas lights festival in the hopes of putting “Airdrie on the map.”
Pirzek said the endeavour cost Softley and his team upwards of $300,000 dollars that they had to source to finance the project.
“The rumour goes he mortgaged his house to do so,” Pirzek added.
With an initial community investment of $70,000, for the overall $250,000 project, Softley and AFOL organizers got to work unloading and setting up the displays in the park.
According to Pirzek, they went home that night and when they returned the next day, the displays had been buried underneath a foot of snow.
“That’s how the very first group of displays was set up – they got buried in snow and they went walking through the park to find the crunching of the bulbs,” she said.
Once the attraction had gained some momentum, Softley firmly believed the yearly festival would be a “boon to the City’s fortunes” in terms of economics and “community prestige.”
“What’s astounding was his belief that all of this could be achieved without draining municipal coffers,” read a statement on the festival’s website. “It would be entirely volunteer-based, and not funded with taxpayer dollars – an achievement we’re proud to say continues to this day.”
Pirzek said Softley wanted the attraction to be a venue that was affordable and family-friendly right from the very beginning.
“We didn’t charge admission and groups could volunteer their time and earn money towards their own local projects,” she said. “It was such a unique model, and I am so proud and honoured that we, after 26 years, still follow that model.”
Pirzek noted others have suggested the festival charge for attendance, as with approximately 75,000 people coming through the park during the festival, they would take home a large revenue.
“But that’s not what we were built upon,” she said. “We were built that anyone could attend regardless of their income and that whatever we offered stayed affordable.”
“After being involved for 19 years, I have seen families that don’t have a lot of money,” she added. “And I've seen them come down and spend quality time with their kids.
“It’s life changing when you get to be a part of that.”
She added the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on many people financially, and it feels good to be able to provide a fun time regardless of financial status.
“We can still offer this family-friendly, budget-friendly event that anyone can attend regardless of income, regardless of their social status.”
She added the festival runs on cash donations and sponsorships along with revenue from $2 train rides and concession sales.
Pirzek added the last few years have been challenging for the festival. In 2015 when expenses hit an all-time high, the community stepped up in the form of donations.
“Donations that year reached record breaking numbers because people want us to exist,” she said.
She added the festival has had to adopt a 10-year strategic plan to ensure they can function in the event they do not have any income.
“Thankfully, we [haven’t] have to go zero funds, but we’re still down coming into this season, and it looks like we might be down a little bit again this year,” she said.
Pirzek said despite the many challenges AFOL Society board members have faced in the past few years, the phone call with Softley in the park reminded her and others on the team why they do what they do.
“Most of the board was there that night and some who had not even heard all the original stories or knew who Stan was – every single one of us had that feeling of pride and honour to continue [on],” she said.
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