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Published December 12, 2010, 12:00 AM

Duluth's Bentleyville Tour lights up this season

Duluth event sees increased interest
After a slow start, attendance at Bentleyville Tour of Lights on Duluth’s bayfront has picked up.

By: Steve Kuchera, INFORUM

After a slow start, attendance at Bentleyville Tour of Lights on Duluth’s bayfront has picked up.

Bentleyville founder Nathan Bentley attributes the slow start to the event billed as “the Midwest’s Largest Holiday Lights Display” to the fact that this year’s festival began a week earlier than last year’s.

“It was almost like someone turned a light switch on Thanksgiving night,” he said. “People didn’t care about lights before that, but it gave us a chance to work out some bugs. It was a good practice week.”

The festival attracted 19,301 visitors during its first five days this year. Last year – the first time Bentleyville was held at Bayfront Festival Park – 38,588 people visited during the same period.

This year’s attendance took a big swing beginning on Thanksgiving. From Thanksgiving Thursday through the following Sunday, 39,388 visitors toured the show of lights, compared to 26,123 during the same period last year.

Bentley believes this year’s festival will draw more than last winter’s 150,000 total attendance, drawn in part by new decorations, including a 120-foot-tall, 33-foot-wide, 17-ton steel Christmas tree decorated with 50,000 lights.

“The excitement over the tree is phenomenal,” Bentley said. “It depends on the weather, too. (Monday) night it rained and we didn’t have more than 500 people all night. And Sunday we weren’t expecting any large turnout and it was like a Saturday night because it was 36 degrees. People were waiting outside the barricades to see Santa Claus. They didn’t care, it was beautiful.”

Nearly 8,500 people visited Bentleyville on Sunday, a 154 percent increase over the number who visited during the festival’s second Sunday last year.

“The weather controls 50 or 60 percent of how we’re doing down there,” Bentley said.

This year’s festival runs through Dec. 26. Admission is free, although visitors are encouraged to bring food and new, unwrapped toys that will be distributed by the Salvation Army to people in Duluth, Superior, Cloquet, Virginia and International Falls.

Donations at Bentleyville helped the Salvation Army serve more than 5,800 people last winter, said Salvation Army Duluth Corps Envoy Alan Carlson. Demand is greater this year, but donations this year are down by roughly a third.