Birmingham's holiday tree lighting will be a little different this year, after the City Commission approved the purchase of a $30,000 artificial Christmas tree for Shain Park Monday night.
The artificial tree will replace the Shain Park "climbing tree," located near the park's playground, which has served as the city's official Christmas tree for several years now. The tree is lit during an official tree-lighting ceremony the evening before Thanksgiving.
The decision to purchase an artificial tree was based on safety and finances, Department of Public Services Director Lauren Wood told the commission. Birmingham currently spends between $5,000-$6,000 on labor and materials every year decorating the climbing tree, and the job is getting more dangerous every holiday season.
'Very difficult to achieve the 'wow' factor' with current tree
According to Wood, the decision to purchase an artificial tree has been on the table for several years.
"For many years, decorating the "climbing tree" has been challenging due to the aging and decline of the health of the tree, including safety concerns," Wood writes in her memo to the commission. "It is very difficult to achieve the "wow" factor for the tree lighting ceremony."
The tree that will be purchased is a 35-foot artificial tree from Christmas Lights, Etc. that is made to look both natural and realistic, Wood said. Similar artificial trees are currently used by Macy's stores and Six Flags locations, among other sites.
The tree comes pre-strung with 15,000 LED lights and has a five-year warranty attached, though Wood said the tree's lifespan is actually close to 10 years. The lights have a three-year warranty. The tree would be placed in the fountain, which is typically turned off in the winter.
In total, the tree costs $29,223.78. Half of that cost will be paid by the city, while the other half — approximately $14,500 — will be paid by the Principal Shopping District (PSD).
According to John Heiney, executive director of the PSD, the PSD spends approximately $30,000 every year to decorate downtown Birmingham for the holidays.
'I would rather see a Charlie Brown tree than a $30,000 plastic tree'
Heiney said decorating the climbing tree has long been a source of frustration both for the PSD and the city.
In a memo to the PSD board dated Sept. 4, Heiney said professional outdoor decorators have inspected the tree and said the shape of the climbing tree — particularly with the large gaps between the branches — make it impossible to give the tree a satisfactory shape and lighting.
In his memo, Heiney noted that Ron Rea — one of the architects behind Shain Park — objected to using an artificial tree. Commissioners Stuart Sherman and Rackeline Hoff, both of whom voted against the plan, agreed.
"This was a real surprise to me," Hoff said. "When the lights go on, I hear lots of wow's."
Hoff also has concerns with the price tag. "There's a pattern I see happening here in the city with expenditures over what we've been anticipating," she said. "I just (see) these extra expenditures and (wonder) when they are going to catch up with us."
Residents Dorothy Conrad and Margaret Betts also stood to speak against the artificial tree.
"I don't think anything justifies spending $30,000 on an artificial tree in Shain Park," Conrad said.
"I would rather see a Charlie Brown tree than a $30,000 plastic tree in Shain Park," Betts added.
However, Mayor Mark Nickita said purchasing the artificial tree will not only save the city money in the long run and be a safer alternative to the climbing tree, it will also give Birmingham a "proper" Christmas tree.
"I know there's a lot of sentimental value with the climbing tree," he said. "But I've noticed that it's not in the shape of a Christmas tree ... This will give us a proper Christmas tree."