By Brian Ojanpa
The Free Press
Let the record show that the switch for the first Kiwanis Holiday Lights in Sibley Park display was thrown at 6:47 p.m. Friday.
The 1 million LED lights strung throughout the park's Great Lawn area elicited a cheer from thousands of onlookers in the 25-degree night.
"Wow," was Gerry Morris' description of the sight as he and wife Deb, who live two blocks away from the park, took it all in.
Morris said he was especially drawn to a large fir that had been painstakingly wrapped in tight rings of multi-colored lights.
"That Christmas tree is well-planned. That's impressive."
People began arriving in the park before 5 p.m. for the night's activities, which included a 30-unit parade of assorted lighted vehicles, including a 1952 Mankato fire truck that broke down.
The news was communicated electronically to Kiwanis President Scott Wojcik, who relayed back his instructions: "Get a bunch of people and push it off to the side."
Kiwanis members and volunteers Friday morning also did some pushing and straightening following high winds Thursday night that wreaked havoc with many of the displays.
"We had to perform triage for awhile," Kiwanis member Kyle Mrozek said of the four-hour task of getting things back in order.
First-year events such as this inherently serve up last-minute surprises, in this case unfortunately coinciding with Black Friday.
"We had to go shopping this morning to pick up supplies, which is a great day to go shopping," Mrozek said wryly.
The free Holiday Lights display will run nightly until Dec. 31 and is expected to attract 50,000 people.
The event is patterned upon the 17-year-old holiday lights display in La Crosse, Wis., which attracts 300,000 people each year and whose organizers have lent their expertise to their Mankato counterparts.
"We've been on the phone with people in La Crosse for the last three weeks," Wojcik said.
The Mankato display will utilize 1,000 volunteers during its run and has raised $126,000 so far for what is expected to be an annual event.
Elizabeth Peterson and Andrew Duffy of Janesville said they arrived about 5:45 p.m. Friday, luckily scored a parking spot across the street from the park, and gave the event high marks.
Their only quibble: "I wish they'd have advertised the timing a little better -- the times the lights would go on," Duffy said.
Event organizers suggested that the only knowns about such an inaugural event is that there are plenty of unknowns, and tweaking its logistics will proceed accordingly.
The lighting display project was fueled by remembrances of past large-scale holiday displays in North Mankato's Mary Circle and Mankato's North Broad Street neighborhoods that attracted thousands of viewers each year.