Costs dim lights of Lowell mill ‘tree’

The tree created by lights strung along the smokestack at the Wannalancit Mill in Lowell is dark this year. The tree created by lights strung along the smokestack at the Wannalancit Mill in Lowell is dark this year. (Jim Higgins for The Boston Globe)
By Kathleen Pierce
Globe Correspondent / December 9, 2010

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It seemed like a Grinchly trick.

The giant Wannalancit Mill Christmas tree, which ushers in the holiday season in Greater Lowell, did not blaze to life this year.

For the past decade, the glowing tree — actually a decorated smokestack — helped crown the City of Lights parade, held the last Saturday in November. “When the City Hall lights went on, people walked away and it was kind of a damper,’’ said City Councilor Edward “Bud’’ Caulfield. “There is something missing.’’

The culprit is not the hermit from Whoville. It’s a different scourge: the economy.

“It was something that we loved doing, but at some point you get overwhelmed,’’ said John Power, principal of a Boston-based real estate firm, Farley White Interests, that owns the old textile mill buildings on the Northern Canal that were converted to office space. “It was beyond our ability this year; we just couldn’t get there.’’

Power’s company paid for the display, which cost $30,000 a year to assemble and keep lit, as an altruistic gesture to the city. He came up with the idea to turn the industrial relic that once belched smoke into the sky into a joyous sight and tapped University of Massachusetts Lowell students to design the tree in 2000. Strands of lights cascaded down the 256-foot stack, topped by a white star. Many considered the faux fir, which could be seen from Tyngsborough to Burlington, a civic point of pride. Few realized it was privately funded.

“If we had known, the community would have gotten together to get it lit. I would have contributed,’’ said Gwen Stith a Lowell downtowner who said she took great pleasure from the radiant tree. “Some of the spirit of the community has been lost.’’

Bernie Lynch, Lowell city manager, said there is nothing he can do about the situation: “I wish there was.’’

It costs $20,000 to illuminate City Hall and the trees and wreaths flanking the cobblestone streets. “It’s not cheap, “ said Lynch, who relies on fund-raising for the holiday display. “It’s part of a community effort.’’

Power, who coordinated the lighting of the mill tree with the past three city managers, expected other mill owners to follow his lead. “I was always surprised it didn’t motivate others to decorate their smokestacks. I’d be inspired if someone stepped up to fill the gap,’’ he said.

Scott Plath, owner of the downtown restaurant Cobblestones in Lowell, said the tree was a friendly beacon on his commute into the city on dark, winter nights.

“It invokes a positive response, an emotional reaction. It’s like the old friend that returns every year. It’s such a Lowell icon for the holiday season,’’ said Plath, whose restaurant is a few blocks from Wannalancit.

Customers have not complained about the missing bit of cheer, Plath said, but “anything that makes people feel good while they are in Lowell is good for my business.’’

Others said it could have been worse.

“I think we should be thankful that it’s only lights we are talking about and not someone’s job,’’ said Matthew Descoteaux, who lives in a converted loft condo in the shadow of the now-defunct tree.

The entrepreneur, who co-owns several businesses downtown with his wife, City Councilor Franky Descoteaux, knows his children will miss the festive display, but chalks it up to the tenor of the times. “All areas of life in this country are trying to squeeze pennies to make a nickel. For a business, every small decision makes a difference.’’

Keeping thousands of lights — red and green one year and solid emerald the next — twinkling each holiday season proved too costly, said Power. Even though the mill is close to capacity, commercial real estate has been hit hard by the recession. “Rents have compressed and expenses have gone up,’’ Power said. “Real estate is a lagging indicator; we get whacked later.’’

While some sectors of the economy, such as retail, are showing signs of growth, the missing tree is an indication not all is merry and bright. “Every budget cut, every darkened smokestack is a reminder of our sad reality. We continue to look for indications of a turnaround in what has been a difficult period, but we have a long way to go,’’ said Plath.

The tree will likely return another year, but Power couldn’t say when. “We’d love to try and figure out a way to bring it back,’’ he said. “We are not giving up on it.’’