Festival big crowd

This image was taken in late November, shortly after the annual Festival of Lights/Christmas in the Park show opened for public viewing. With several activities surrounding the event not happening because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event still generated about the same amount of donations as past years, meaning that there may have been more visitors this year.

MURRAY — As Murray-Calloway County Parks Director Ryan Yates reviewed the donation totals for the just-completed Murray Bank Festival of Lights/Christmas in the Park show for 2020 on Wednesday, he came to a conclusion.

The totals collected almost matched past years, which is about $18,000 in cash donations and 10 to 11 truck loads of canned and non-perishable food donations. However, this came in a year where a few activities that always have a strong impact on those numbers were missing, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

There was no walk-through for the public this year, where Gil Hopson Drive is closed to vehicular traffic, which meant also that Santa Claus did not appear that night. Also, there was no bounce from the Rotary Club of Murray Christmas Parade, which was canceled due to the pandemic. Yates said that night results in one of the biggest crowds each year at Central Park.

In other words, it appears the crowds may actually have been larger on an average night.

“Those are two big nights for us each year, so not having that was a big disappointment. But it was just unbelievable the way we came out (with donations) and the way the community came out. We’re fortunate to be where we’re at in Murray,’ said Yates, who is in his fourth year as parks director.

“Last year, we were a little over $17,000 actually, so we beat that. The year before that, I think we were a little over $18,000 again and the first year we were over $18,000. Plus, we had two or three nights this year where it just rained terribly. So, if it hadn’t been for the COVID situation, I think we easily would’ve had the largest numbers since I’ve been here. We’re just blessed.”

Yates said he believes one thing was driving the large crowds to Central, as well as Chestnut Park, for the show.

“There was nothing else to do. You weren’t able to go to Murray State (basketball games) like usual. There were no high school games going on back then. People wanted to get out,” he said of an event that probably created one of the best opportunities to adhere to COVID-19 social distancing as no one was allowed to leave their vehicles. “And you know what? We needed it.

“I remember back in the summer when it was me and (Parks Maintenance Director Steve Wilhelm and former Program Director) John Gorrell, and we were all out there cutting grass. I had gone back to our shop to get something and, as I come back out, I started looking around. I looked at the (Playhouse in the Park) and there was nobody there. The pool … nobody there. The big playground …  nobody there. I’ll be honest with you, it was depressing, so I was kind of looking at the (Festival) as 2021 has arrived, 2020 is out of here.

“This was the kick start to our 2021 and I think this did that for us.”

With the walk-through and parade bump not happening, local schools tried to fill the void. Both Murray Elementary School and Calloway County Preschool had nights where their teachers served as greeters after spreading the word to their students and their families. Yates said he was not present for either of those nights, but was told that the line of cars “went nearly to the end of Arcadia Circle (near Chestnut Street) and went past the Big Apple Bar and Grill.”

“The kids love seeing their teachers out and about, so I think we may have learned there is an opportunity there,” he said.

Yates also said proceeds from the food collections went to three entities this year, instead of two. The Murray-Calloway County Need Line was a recipient for many previous years before Soup for the Soul joined the fray two years ago. This year saw the Murray Lions Club added to the mix as it is a main contributor to blessing boxes throughout the community that allow sanyone needing food to obtain items with no questions asked.

All of this is made possible by the efforts of a rather small group. Yates cited the team of Wilhelm, along with parks employees LaTosha Shankle, Tonya Kendall and Sammy Cain, as well as park rangers Tim Stone and Russell Buchanan.

“I can’t remember who I was talking to, but it was another media establishment and I remember that when I told them it was our maintenance that put this together, they were blown away,” he said. “They thought we hired someone to come in and put all of the displays together for us. Nope, it’s just Steve and his team.”

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