Uptown Holiday Lighting canceled over 'financial decision,' according to the district

Mycah Hatfield Image
Tuesday, February 20, 2024
Why was the Uptown Holiday Lighting event canceled?
A favorite holiday tradition for many Houstonians was canceled without explanation in 2023.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A favorite holiday tradition for many Houstonians was canceled without explanation in 2023.

The Uptown Holiday Lighting happens every Thanksgiving night and has drawn a crowd of as many as 150,000 in years past. They typically have a fireworks show, music, a balcony decorating contest at the nearby hotel and Santa turns on the holiday lights.

This last year would have been the 35th annual event, but Uptown Houston posted to their Facebook page saying "Please note the Uptown Holiday Lighting will no longer occur."

Carolyn and Bill Simmons had the same room at the Hilton for 25 years so they could participate in the balcony decorating contest. This year that balcony was bare.

"I said this morning, it's kind of a little depressing," Carolyn told ABC13 on Thanksgiving. "That's the way things go, unfortunately."

Others showed up to Post Oak Boulevard, not knowing it was canceled, like Anna Laynez and her family.

"I'm very interested and curious to find out if there is any underlying reason," Laynez told ABC13 that night.

When asked in November for a further explanation, Uptown Houston issued a statement saying, "This year, we will not have the Uptown Holiday Lighting event. Instead, we will be promoting the Uptown area as a holiday destination throughout the season."

The night of the canceled event, 13 Investigates submitted public records requests to the district for all of their emails related to the lighting from Thanksgiving of 2022 to Thanksgiving of 2023. They provided 211 emails. Records revealed that plans were in the works for the event until about September and then the emails changed.

"Which should show you that we tried everything that we could to make this event happen," Bob Ethington, the director of research and development of Uptown Houston, said.

Members of the district went back and forth with a public relations firm to craft a statement about the cancellation. One email out of the more than 200 from Ethington indicated that it was a "financial decision."

"Retail, hotel, residential is doing wonderful, but the office (space) has been affected nationally and in Houston and we had to make adjustments," Ethington said.

Harris County Improvement District #1 pays for the event. They are funded by taxes collected from commercial property in the area. Since the pandemic, office space in Uptown has gone from almost 80 percent leased to 70 percent.

Their budgets show tax revenue has been down for several years. Uptown Houston amended their 2023-2024 budget to show $453,000 less in projected tax revenues for the year. .

Ethington said they are not doing poorly financially, but they had to make cuts. They decided to cut the Uptown Holiday Lighting, which typically costs between $200,000 to $250,000 each year.

ABC13 asked Ethington why the district was not forthcoming with the real reason behind the cancellation.

"There wasn't an intent to be nefarious about it," Ethington said in response. "It was just that we wanted to make sure that people stayed focused on the positive and on the things that were going to be available in the area and not just what we weren't doing."

In another email released to ABC13 from the former Uptown President and CEO to a Houstonian asking about the cancellation, he said the crowd size had decreased significantly.

Ethington said it has decreased for a number of reasons but said that did not play into their decision.

He said they had not had sponsorships in years past but that they are open to it in the future to resurrect the event.

"If there are companies or individuals that would love to contact us to discuss sponsorship we would definitely be interested in furthering that discussion," Ethington said.

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