Following last year’s holiday upheaval, December events will return to normal at St. Armands Circle, beginning with the traditional hosting of the 45th annual Holiday Night of Lights tree-lighting ceremony by the St. Armands Circle Association from 5:30-9 p.m on Friday, Dec. 1.
Citing complications with the presence of the one-time Winter Spectacular in Circle Park last year, the merchants group determined it could not safely and adequately hold the traditional tree-lighting event as it had for the previous four decades and canceled the event. As a result, the city put on the event in 2022, and although it had yet to approve St. Armands Circle Association’s special event permit application for this year, which was submitted in September, it had yet to announce plans for an encore this year.
Hearing that city staff was considering taking back the tree-lighting permanently brought SACA board members and supporters to Monday’s City Commission meeting to request in person that the city grant the special event permit so planning could continue. As they were speaking, underway was the assembly of the holiday tree for which the city had given a grant of $286,000 to purchase last year.
“It was brought to our attention last week that there were some major concerns based on what transpired last year and us hosting the event,” said SACA President Scott MacDonald. “As we speak today, the tree is being installed, and the Circle is being decorated. We’ve raised over $40,000 through donations and contributions to help pay for the tree, the decorations and the night of the event.”
Last year, the city approved the grant to the now-defunct St. Armands Business Improvement District and SACA to acquire a replacement for the previous 20-year-old tree and to cover the first year’s installation costs. SACA is responsible for contracting Christmas Designers to install, remove and store the tree at an annual cost of approximately $39,000. In previous years, the former tree was stored locally in a container and installed by a group of merchant and resident volunteers.
Last year, BID Chairman Tom Leonard and former SACA Executive Director Rachel Burns, now the organization’s marketing director, together pitched the city for the new tree as the previous one was no longer viable or safe to install. Leonard later proposed the monthlong Winter Spectacular to celebrate it as Sarasota’s new city tree.
City Commission approval of that event compelled SACA to cancel its regularly scheduled December events, including the Holiday Night of Lights, and resulted in a very public rift between Burns and Leonard.
The Winter Spectacular was not an initiative of the St. Armands BID, but was rather a private enterprise.
Earlier this year, Winter Spectacular organizers, citing continued opposition, withdrew their permit request to hold the event for a second year. SACA followed in September by submitting its own permit request for a return of the Holiday Night of Lights and began raising funds to pay for installation the tree.
“We had been putting this event on for so many years, and the executive board made the decision that we just couldn't let it fall to the wayside,” Burns told the Observer. “We did talk to the city and to the BID to ask for assistance in putting it together prior to the BID’s dissolution, and unfortunately we were turned down. So we had to look at reworking our budgets going forward and doing some fundraising within our merchants and with our partners to make sure that this tradition can continue.”
In addition to the first lighting of the tree, the evening will include live performances, activities and the arrival of Santa. City commissioners will be invited to participate. Following the tree-lighting will be a weekend of “family fun days.”
“I truly apologize for what transpired last year,” MacDonald told commissioners on Monday. “It was bad on both sides. I truly apologize for that and I just hope that you'll consider approving our special events permit and we can get together and figure out a way to host the event.”
At the end of Monday's meeting, Mayor Kyle Battie acknowledged MacDonald’s apology and the pleas of two other speakers as enough to forgive and forget, at least for this year. City Manager Marlon Brown told commissioners he was prepared to approve SACA’s permit application pending approval by consensus, which he received.
Holiday Night of Lights details are available at StArmandsCircleAssociation.com.
Who is running SACA?
During her bid for an appointment to the now-defunct St. Armands Business Improvement District Board of Directors earlier this year, Burns resigned from her position as executive director of the St. Armands Circle Association and took on the role as marketing director.
Since then, SACA has been operating under board leadership without a chief executive. That could change early next year.
“Our new board is going to have its first meeting in January and we're going to have that discussion at that time and we will see what happens from there,” Burns said. “I will be continuing with the association. What I do or what role or title I have who knows? That will be entirely up to the board, but I will definitely still be continuing working with the association.”
Correction: This article has been updated to correct when the permit application was submitted.