Controversial Christmas tree taken back for tests

By Tammy Keith Published January 26, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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Tammy Keith

Get Lit employees scale the steel skeleton of the Christmas tree in Rogers Plaza in downtown Conway. The work to dismantle the tree started Monday and was finished before 11 a.m. Wednesday. The tree, which had experienced electrical problems since it was erected in November, was taken to Get Lit’s facility in Springdale to be tested.

CONWAY — Conway’s Christmas tree, which became a four-letter word in some circles, was dismantled last week and taken back by the manufacturer for testing.

Summer Hull, chief operations officer for Get Lit in Springdale, supervised the men taking down the 54-foot artificial tree.

“It’s at no cost to the city of Conway,” Hull said as she stood in Rogers Plaza in downtown Conway.

Negotiations had been underway between the city and Get Lit on the fee to dismantle the almost $130,000 tree.

In the end, Get Lit did it for free.

“We as a company decided” not to charge the city to take it down, Hull said.

Conway bought the artificial tree from Get Lit, the only company in Arkansas that makes such trees, Hull said.

“I know it’s the biggest tree in Arkansas,” she said. “I believe it is the biggest one in the Midwest.”

The tree experienced problems with lights — and public relations — from the time it was erected in November.

A ring of lights around the top of the tree didn’t work at the city’s tree-lighting ceremony.

Get Lit employees made at least eight trips to Conway free of charge, Hull said, to work on the tree and the electricity to the plaza.

Hull said she’s been to the city five times.

She said six Get Lit employees arrived at Rogers Plaza at 3:30 p.m. Monday and started taking the tree apart.

“We worked till 6:30 or 7 p.m. It was gorgeous,” she said of the weather.

City of Conway employees had the day off Monday for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

At 7:00 a.m. on that cold Tuesday morning, six city employees from the parks and recreation department and physical plant met the six Get Lit employees, she said.

Hull bought doughnuts and coffee at Shipley’s Do-Nuts on Oak Street for the crew, she said.

They were at the site early Wednesday morning, too, with two additional city employees, and finished before 11 a.m.

“Some chamber partners comped us some hotel rooms,” Hull said.

She stood near piles of branches as the tree was disassembled.

“Whoa! Lower it a bit at a time,” she called to an employee as a section of steel swung from its tether.

“There were two main components [of the tree’s problems],” Hull said.

“One is, the original lights we had gotten from our factory were a higher amperage than they were supposed to be,” she said.

The factory is in China, she said.

“We tested a batch earlier in the spring,” Hull said. “What we got was a higher amperage.”

The night of the tree lighting, a section of lights didn’t come on. That was the beginning of off-and-on lighting issues.

Get Lit came to Conway at no charge, she said, and footed the bill for an electrician to add more circuits.

“It’s important for people to realize we paid for that,” Hull said.

“So, then it was a matter of breaking up the power into different circuits,” Hull said. “It’s a balancing act on breaking up your amperage.”

The second issue, she said, was the water from a rainy period during the holidays.

“We did fight some electrical issues throughout the season. We did fight some water.

“People say, ‘Well, it’s an outside tree.’ But, just like Christmas lights you would put outside — if you get water — water and electricity don’t mix,” Hull said.

Vandalism to the tree also contributed to the problems, she said.

“Branches were taken; bulbs were taken out. That leaves open circuits,” she said, which allows water to get in.

Nate Robinson, creative director for Get Lit, said in an interview that lights are designed to go off if they get wet, to avoid a potentially dangerous situation.

In one instance, he said, a plug was burned from an external source.

Hull said she has not heard of vandalism on other trees Get Lit has manufactured and sold to cities.

“Vandalism is not something we’ve seen,” she said. “I’ll defend the city. … It’s in an area where not a lot of people are.”

Two surveillance cameras were installed in the plaza.

“An electrical issue was discovered on Christmas Eve — it was not a Get Lit issue,” she said. It had to do with the junction box.

Yet again, Hull said, Get Lit traveled to the city at no charge to make repairs.

“That has since been fixed,” she said.

“As a company, we’ve taken responsibility,” Hull said. “We’ve come up here on our dime to fix things whether they were our fault or not, whether it was a warranty issue or not. We still came up here and fixed it at no charge to the city.”

Jack Bell, chief of staff for Mayor Tab Townsell, said he is happy with Get Lit’s response to the problems.

“We’re very pleased, and it’s been an extremely good partnership,” Bell said. “We feel like they’re going to do what they said they’re going to do. We’re counting on that.”

Bell said the company’s representatives have shown up in Conway when they said they would, even showing up on Monday when they were set to arrive Tuesday.

Hull said the tree will be taken back to Get Lit’s facility in Springdale and reassembled.

“We’re going to take this back to Northwest Arkansas,” she said. “We’re going to do some upgrades on it — we’ll have to see what those are. We’re also going to replace any branches at no charge.

“We’re actually going to set it up at our facility and do some diagnostics.”

Bell said the company will set up the tree outside and expose it to the elements to test it, including turning a sprinkler on the tree in case it doesn’t rain.

Hull said she doesn’t have a date of redelivery, but the tree will be back in Conway before the next holiday season.

Some city officials have said in interviews that the tree will last 15 to 20 years.

Hull said it’s hard to estimate that.

“The skeleton is powder-coated steel,” she said. “The skeleton could last 25 or 50 years. … It’s not going anywhere.”

However, the tree’s components might need to be replaced or refreshed over time, she said.

“Its garland that’s out in the elements. Maybe it needs new ornaments or the lights need to be updated in 10 years. It’s hard to say what the longevity of the tree is because it’s different components,” she said. “Are we going to get a tornado go through downtown Conway in two years? Are we going to get an ice storm? Will it be 100 degrees in the winter?”

Hull said some of the tree’s resilience will “depend on how it’s stored.”

Bell said the tree, separated into its pieces, will be stored in the Conway Expo Center, either upstairs or in an unfinished area.

Whether positive or negative, Hull said, Conway and its tree were talked about.

“I think the important thing for people to remember — and I think a lot of people do — is this brought of lot of attention to Conway,” she said.

“Conway’s been mentioned 100 times in the news. Good or bad, it’s still being mentioned,” she said.

“I heard from people who said, ‘I was driving to Fort Smith,’ or ‘I was driving to Little Rock,’” she said, “‘and I stopped in Conway.’”

If they bought a soda, or dinner, or shopped, “it helps the community,” Hull said.

The money came from Advertising and Promotion funds, which come from a 2 percent tax on prepared foods and hotel/motel costs. The money can’t be used for salaries, streets or other general-fund projects, city officials said.

The cost of the tree — $129,989.32 to be exact — included tax, setup and training of the city’s physical-plant employees.

Bids were waived in order to get the tree in time. City officials have defended the move by saying Get Lit was the only Arkansas company that offered such a tree and that it was close enough to offer service.

Asked if Get Lit made money on the tree after all the trips and repairs, Hull paused.

“I hate to answer because I’m afraid to start a storm,” she said.

“I haven’t put pencil to paper, but probably not, with the additional people we had to put it up and take it down,” and trips to Conway, she said.

Hull said the money isn’t the company’s only focus.

“At the end of the day, one of the reasons we do it is some little kids came to the tree, looked up and said, ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’”

“We actually had one yesterday who was upset that [the tree] was coming down,” she said, laughing.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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