BUCKHANNON - Putting lights up along the edges of Buckhannon's downtown buildings once seemed like a bright idea - but the community group that spearheaded the project has decided to take them down.
Create Buckhannon enlisted several volunteers who spent part of the weekend removing the LED lights that once outlined Main Street buildings in bright red, neon orange and vibrant blue, among other hues.
The decision to dismantle the lights stems from ongoing maintenance issues and the cost associated with repairing those issues, Melodie Stemple, Create Buckhannon member and assistant director of the Upshur County Development Authority, said Tuesday.
So on Saturday, Create Buckhannon volunteers Buck Edwards and Jerry Kimble - with the assistance of Will Eddy from Satisfaction Tree Services - removed lights from all the buildings with the exception of Dairy Queen.
However, the group's decision prompted questions from several community members and outrage on the part of Create Buckhannon member and former mayoral candidate Michael Cowger.
"To think that well over $10,000 of tax payer money has been wasted," Cowger wrote in response to one of Stemple's emails about the removal of the lights. "It's a misuse of public funds and probably a crime! But that's just my opinion. What I'm left to wonder is (whether) our Main Street will look as bleak and barren as it did for this year's Fourth of July weekend ..."
Stemple explained the group's reasoning in a mass email sent in reply to Cowger's concerns.
"As everyone knows the lights went (through) a couple of rough weather storms that caused damage to the controllers/lights/etc. We have replaced several of the controllers throughout the last couple of years which would range from $200-$400 each time," she wrote. "And getting to the areas that required fixing - whether through a business building or by a lift - became an issue - especially if that building's business was no longer in business and remained empty. Getting permission to enter a building became difficult."
Stemple said she enlisted the help of a consultant from a local business, who informed her that multiple upgrades to the lights - including the installation of outlets and covered controllers as well as affixing the lights to buildings with screws - were necessary to keep them fully functional.
Create Buckhannon discussed those issues at "one or two" of its meetings and ultimately decided it didn't possess either the equipment or the monetary resources to maintain the LED system, Stemple said in the email.
Cowger - who became involved in ironing out glitches in the project in November 2012 - says he's donated approximately $650 toward the project, in addition to parts and volunteer time. In fact, he recently ordered parts which are currently stored at his house, he said in an email to The Inter-Mountain.
"What bothers me is that rather than just leaving them off and coming up with a plan, someone decided to have them all removed after over $10,000 of tax money was used to put them up," he wrote.
In 2011, Buckhannon City Council voted to donate $10,000 to the Upshur County Development Authority, which then worked in conjunction with Create Buckhannon to purchase and install the LED lights that lined the buildings, as well as a slew of Christmas lights and decorations for downtown Buckhannon, Mayor Kenny Davidson said in an interview Tuesday.
"We had a year where our Christmas lights were just embarrassingly not up," Davidson said. "So I called for a group of volunteers to form a Christmas lights committee, and it kind of morphed a little bit from that group of volunteers to including the Create Buckhannon people and we (city officials) had talked amongst ourselves we would put $10,000 into the pot as a city to do some lighting. I think they did a really nice job to start with, but they're continually having problems and can't get them to work the way they wanted them to work."
Davidson said although he was not consulted about the removal of the lights, he still feels the city's money was well spent.
"I would point out that there were a number of Christmas lights that were purchased and installed on the trees (on Main Street), and I'm thinking we probably got our money's worth with the (Christmas) lighting on the poles and trees," he remarked.
"I think it was a good attempt at a plan and it involved a lot of people in the community and a considerable amount of volunteer work - it truly was a volunteer, community effort, and I applaud that sort of thing and will encourage that at any time," the mayor added.
Stemple wants to make one thing clear about the lights: "We're not going to not use them," she said. Exactly where they'll be utilized has yet to be decided, but one idea is to install them at Jawbone Park.
"It was a project that apparently wasn't as well thought-out as it needed to be in the beginning, and now we are having to remove them," she said, "but we hope to reuse them for future projects."
Contact Katie Kuba by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at IMT_Kuba.