Sept. 8 2021 10:25 AM

Decorating Elves turned a mammoth light installation into a reality for a Florida community.

Creating a winter wonderland that showcases a brightly lit holiday experience can be a challenge. Expand that property by more than four city blocks with hundreds of trees and make it a year-round installation, though, and you’ll have a sense of the scale of the project tackled by Nick Schriver, general manager of Decorating Elves, Clearwater, Florida.

The company, an outdoor landscape lighting contractor on the Gulf Coast of Florida, does a significant amount of Christmas lighting and holiday décor. As holiday lighting has become more mainstream, Schriver has seen new lighting projects grow larger and more complex. At this point, his team tends to focus on higher-end jobs, with about 70% of the work done for commercial properties. During the holiday lighting season, Schriver’s 10-employee team scales up to 60 to handle the work.

The multiple-block installation was a project that developed in Sarasota, Florida. “It’s about an hour’s drive from Tampa. It’s very much a retirement community that’s going through a renaissance,” he says.

It’s settled on Sarasota Bay, which overlooks the Gulf of Mexico. “It’s right on the water. It’s a beautiful downtown.”

Like many cities, the urban core of Sarasota has been in development with a goal to encourage more people to visit the area and spend time and money. “They’ve been working on getting their main street and the side streets to be more thriving,” Schriver says. That led to the formation of a business district of retail and other business owners coming together to revitalize the area.

As new development was planned for the main street, a holiday lighting project was proposed for local Five Points Park, right across from the downtown library. While the city’s effort to put up holiday lighting looked great the first year, maintaining it through the rest of the year was a challenge, says Schriver. They looked for a long-term solution.

“There’s a new mayor who wants to get behind it, and the business district is saying they want a universal feel to the main street business corridor,” says Schriver. The district was looking for people to feel safe and comfortable walking around the area.

Making a plan

Taking the project from just holiday lighting in the local park to something involving the surrounding streets was a much larger undertaking. Officials from Sarasota contacted Decorating Elves along with other holiday lighting specialists to talk about how to price the new plans. The lighting project had scaled up drastically, and it took some frank discussion with the client to connect it to a realistic budget, he says.

“What they first laid on the table was just really outrageous. It was very much a Disney-type project,” Schriver says. “I had to say, ‘I understand that this is what you’re telling me you want to do. I’m hoping that you guys have the kind of money to be able to do that.’” While those initial plans called for leaving the lights up year-round, they didn’t account for any kind of maintenance budget on an annual basis. Schriver says without those reserves in place, the installation would eventually become more and more difficult to maintain over time.

“I told them, ‘No matter who you hire, if you don’t manage this project and have service built into it on a routine basis, you are going to just burn a bunch of money,’” he says. “A lot of contractors talk about how great things will look, but very few contractors will lay down the reality of the project.”

It’s a tough line to walk, as you don’t want to come off as arrogant and turn a client away, he says. But it’s important to be able to look at the big picture and talk them through what their project actually entails. Schriver broke down the plans from multiple perspectives, including color-changing bulbs and various numbers of trees and gave a rough estimate for what each would cost.

“On the front end, what I was doing was educating the customer of the expectations,” he says. “I wasn’t just educating them on our services and what we could do, but creating the expectation for what they could be getting from the project.”

Because of the size of the company, he could do that without fear of losing the customer, he says, but it was still a risk.

Once the Sarasota officials understood the realistic scope of the project, they had to break it up into smaller-scale phases and put it out as a request for proposals. Even though it meant a stack of paperwork and dealing with the bidding process, Schriver’s team put in the effort to be included, having helped shepherd the city this far.

A creative problem

While much of landscape lighting is an art form, developing the cost for such a largescale project is more about dealing with numbers. “There’s a lot less creative design and a lot more algebra problems,” he says. When looking at a property from a design standpoint, you consider how different elements will work in concert to develop an overall vision. Having done that creative work over and over gave Schriver the experience to roughly determine how the trees would be decorated and the background to know how much that approach would cost.

His team looked at each of the trees in the proposal and considered the species and size.

“So a small oak is going to average about 200 illuminations for lights,” he says. “A medium oak will average 500 sets of lights and a large oak is going to average 800 to 1,000.” During the process, he walked the blocks involved and planned out the extension cords and wiring as well.

“You take the big picture, which can be really intimidating, and you break it down into these small, manageable increments. Then you run the math,” he says. “At the end of the day, you come out with a number.”

The team was awarded the project and went to work making the holiday light show a reality, starting with an eight-person crew working an assembly line through the trees on the street. They placed between 250 and 500 illuminations on average on most of the trees in the main corridor, with some of the trees in the park receiving between 1,000 and 2,000 lights.

The installation happened to coincide with the release of a new product that Schriver incorporated into his design, a holiday light string that could be wrapped around a tree trunk that could be left up year-round. The strand had a rubber band built into it so that it would expand as the tree grew throughout the year without digging into the bark. Though younger trees grow more quickly, even mature trees can damage light strands because of expansion.

With an installation that needs to stay up all year, it’s important to use products that are more heavy-duty and weather-resistant, Schriver says. Make sure lights are fastened well and tight. Use silicone to make sure seams are waterproof where necessary and zip ties to help keep light strands in place. Zip ties aren’t as useful on living anchors such as trees, but they are a good fit for hardscapes or light poles.

“You’re not taking the lights down with a pair of scissors at the end of the season to store them and then putting them back up later,” Schriver says.

It’s also important to keep everything high off the ground. Rodents are one cause of damage, but the other main source is people themselves, he says. In the park and on the street, all of the light strands and products are at least 6 feet off the ground to keep them out of easy reach for pulling.

Beyond the initial installation, Schriver insisted on the plans for ongoing maintenance in the RFP. That started as a quarterly contract for checkups at first with weekly visits during the holiday season and developed into weekly visits year-round. Each week, Schriver’s team services the lights in the area, repairing broken bulbs and checking for damage.

The Sarasota project began as a two-phase project covering about 10 blocks of the Main Street area. Then over the next year and a half, three additional phases were developed, expanding the coverage out to surrounding streets. The first and second phases included the business district and Five Points Park. With the additional phases covering the nearby streets came more trees, sometimes about 100 at a time. Counting in the eventual four additional phases that came in the next year, the overall project included about 350 trees.

“That’s where the people are,” Schriver says. “When you walk out onto the street from a high-end restaurant, and the lights are beautiful. You think, ‘Oh, since we’re out, let’s go get a cocktail or a coffee.’”

Schriver and his team are currently in talks to plan additional phases in the upcoming seasons, adding what he considers to be “wow” features that can be incorporated into the overall design. The additions will bring even more of a seasonal flair to the multiple-block evening experience.

“The people love it. There’s been a lot of positive feedback,” he says. “We’re creating an environment where people can hang out in the evening and illuminating it in a manner where they feel safe out. That’s a really big deal, and it’s huge to a nighttime retail environment.”

Kyle Brown is the editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at kylebrown@igin.com.