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Should Austin Outsource the Trail of Lights?

The entrance to the Trail of Lights, photographed in 2006.
Photo courtesy
The entrance to the Trail of Lights, photographed in 2006.

The Trail of Lights is an Austin tradition dating back decades – or was, until it went dark due to city budget cuts in 2009.

That may no longer be the case, as an item before the Austin City Council this week would see the RunTex Foundation – an arm of the local running store and marathon sponsor – bringing the Trail of Lights back to Zilker Park this holiday season.

Backup materials on the agenda item state:

[The Parks and Recreation Department] received an unsolicited proposal regarding the production of a 2012 Trail of Lights from the RunTex Foundation (RTF). RTF seeks to partner with the city to bring back the “traditional” Trail of Lights (TOL) Holiday Festival that will offer an 8-night, family-friendly lighted trail and entertainment at no cost to the citizens of Austin. Recognizing the need to generate funding for this event, RTF proposes to conduct a major fund raising campaign to reimburse the City of Austin for all direct costs associated with the production of this event.

The RunTex Foundation would procure at least $500,000 three months prior to the event, which would then be appropriated to city departments in tandem with the event. The total cost of the event is tabulated at $716,078, including city fee waivers, but not transit services (most likely some form of shuttles) that RunTex would also provide.

Opinion is divided at local liberal politics blog Burnt Orange Report (BOR) as to whether all this is a good thing.

BOR editor in chief Katherine Haenschen credits Mayor Lee Leffingwell with the proposal. (She’s supporting him in his re-election campaign.) Haenschen calls the decision a win-win, writing:

The City no longer foots the bill for the event given our current lean times -- it's a valid decision on the part of Council when the budget is tight. Should Council approve the proposal from RunTex Foundation, [Paul] Carrozza's non-profit would be responsible for raising the money and handling all logistics. Carrozza has pledged to make the event free for all, and return it to the 1.25-mile length that Austinites have enjoyed since the 1960's. [Emphasis in original post.]

However, BOR  publisher Karl-Thomas Musselman weighs in with a separate post, arguing the privatization of what was once a city-financed event “sets bad precedent:”

The Trail of Lights is in a unique category - that of government sponsored public events. The City of Austin, as a government entity, has had a long tradition and history of providing over 300,000 residents and visitors alike, with a memorable touchstone. It is an event, not unlike city sponsored fireworks or festivals, where government in its most direct tangible form, has the opportunity to showcase how it can work to provide a public good to the people.

Are you happy to see the Trail of Lights return, regardless of who's footing the bill? Or do you have qualms about sponsorship of the event? 

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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