Last week, Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce President Leslie Brown announced that due to a lack of support from local businesses, the chamber would not be able to foot the bill for holiday lights along Austin Street and Continental Avenue.
For the first time in 20 years, the commercial hub won’t have the holiday lights.
Typically, the chamber administers the program and pays for the electricity and insurance. Over the last decade, the funding for the lights have come from “a small handful of Forest Hills property owners,” and local merchants, Brown said. However, the merchants have donated less and less over the years.
In 2015 and 2016, the chamber personally distributed flyers to merchants along the Forest Hills business strip asking for contributions to “keep lights shining in Forest Hills for the holidays,” with contributions starting at $100. Last year, only three merchants contributed.
“For two years in a row we had no response, and then recently one of the property owners dropped out and I knew we wouldn’t be able to fund the lights this year,” Brown said.
She admitted that her team did not send flyers out this year, addressing complaints by some business owners who said they didn’t donate because they didn’t know about the cause.
One shop owner, who wished to remain anonymous, said contributing to the holiday lights didn’t particularly help their business, though they insisted their business wasn’t contacted by the chamber for contributions even prior to this year.
“A lot of times when we hand out the flyers, it doesn’t even reach the business owners,” Brown added. “We acknowledge that business owners work hard seven days a week to pay the bills, and sometimes things fall through the cracks. We understand that.”
A two-year contract for the holiday lights is upwards of $32,000, and the chamber isn’t in a position to cover all of the additional costs.
Many residents were upset about the situation, saying that the area won’t have a holiday spirit. Some said they would visit other commercial shopping areas instead of Austin Street or Continental Avenue.
“If local business owners won’t contribute to our neighborhood, why should we contribute to their businesses?” one Austin Street shopper asked.
Another resident noted that Sunnyside was able to provide a free holiday trolley and Forest Hills “couldn’t even muster up lights, which shows we’re doing something wrong here.”
Another woman suggested franchises in the neighborhood, like Starbucks, Target, Buffalo Wild Wings and Shake Shack, should sponsor the lights.
The chamber discussed the holiday lights situation during their last meeting on October 25 and there were no complaints. Brown said she’s shocked to see such backlash.
As an alternative to the holiday lights, Brown proposed a banner program that will be less costly than the lights. Brown will design red-and-white holiday banners, and will only place the ones that she can sell. Each banner costs about $250 instead of $750 for a strand of lights.
Local business and property owners will be able to sponsor a holiday banner on light poles along Austin Street and Continental Avenue. Each sponsor’s name will be displayed at the bottom.
Immediately after the chamber announced it would be unable to fund the holiday lights, local resident Cat Rakowski created a Go Fund Me page, asking those who live, work or visit the community to chip in towards a $5,000 goal to help bring back the lights. Nearly $900 was raised in a few days.
The fundraising page stopped collecting donations for holiday lights last Friday, shortly after the chamber’s board made the decision to use the banners instead. Brown noted that even if residents had raised $5,000, the chamber would still need $10,000 to secure a contract.
“I wasn’t consulted regarding the Go Fund Me page, and even though it was a nice gesture, we’re basically out of time,” Brown said. “I want to thank all those people who were very generous.”
With the banner program now in gear, Rakowski will refund donations or send the donations to CANpaign4Moms, a nonprofit that provides food, clothing and shelter to single moms in Queens and throughout the city.
On November 27, the chamber will sponsor the third annual Celebrate Winter event on 71st Road between Austin Street and Queens Boulevard. The event, which runs from 5:30 to 8 p.m., features live entertainment, face painting, free food tastings, goody bags, and an appearance from the Forest Hills reindeer.
“We just really want to turn a negative into a positive and this is a real kickoff to remind people to visit Forest Hills,” Brown said.