- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2006

Elizabeth Poole really knows how to light up the town.

For the past 11 years, Mrs. Poole has run the Winter Lights Festival in the city of Gaithersburg, a holiday light show that brings an average of 80,000 visitors every year.

“I got the idea when I visited the Ogilby Park in West Virginia. They had set up a big holiday light show, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really cool,’ ” said Mrs. Poole, the recreation program supervisor for the city of Gaithersburg.

Now the Winter Lights Festival in the Seneca Creek State Park is one of the biggest holiday light displays in the Washington area.

At least eight major light shows are presented every winter in the Washington region. The public shows normally have stationary and animated light displays that visitors can walk or drive through to get in the mood for the holidays.

The Gaithersburg Winter Lights Festival features more than 440 illuminated displays along a 31/2-mile drive.

“I take my kids to see the lights every year,” said Janet Limmer, Gaithersburg’s director of arts and special events, and Mrs. Poole’s immediate supervisor. “They always want to roll down the window and turn up the heat in order get as close to the displays as they can.”

A Gaithersburg native, Mrs. Poole can easily give directions to her offices. She works in the recreation facility beside Gaithersburg High School, the same school she attended when she was a teen.

“I originally thought I would move on, but when the job opened up I took it, and I’ve been here for 23 years,” she said.

Mrs. Poole took an internship with Gaithersburg’s recreation program immediately after graduating from Frostburg State University in Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in recreation.

“We love having Elizabeth on the team; she is reliable and very creative,” said Michele Mcleish, director of Gaithersburg’s Department of Recreation. “You would never know that she has been here so long. She’s so creative. Some people who work at a job for a long time end up clocking in and clocking out, but not Elizabeth.”

Some of Mrs. Poole’s additions to the festival are animated reindeer displays and an impressive white light arch near the entrance of the trail.

But the job hasn’t been all fun and games for the recreation major.

“It was stressful for the first couple of years,” said Mrs. Poole. “I was responsible for so much money and it was such a big undertaking.”

In her first year, Mrs. Poole spent months researching her idea, finding an appropriate venue, and presenting the plan to the mayor’s council to get funding. She said the program had a good relationship with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and agreed to set up a contract with the Seneca State Park.

“I had no experience in this so I had to learn the whole process very quickly,” said Mrs. Poole.

For the first three years, Mrs. Poole and her staff of volunteers painted wooden display boards in a local barn until the early hours of the morning.

Eventually, the program acquired sponsors to help streamline the process. The sponsors help to pay for the displays, park fees and electricity costs.

They also partnered with Pepco to help subsidize the electricity costs, and hired state and city ground workers to set up the lights.

The city’s ground workers start on Oct. 1 and work until the end of Thanksgiving. There are no outlets on the three-mile trail so they are responsible for laying more than 7,000 feet of light cord. The entire operation takes six men about 740 hours to put up and take down the displays.

This fall, Seneca State Park flooded after a big storm and submerged a number of the light displays around the lake area of the park.

“I was really worried about how we were going to fix it before the holidays,” said Mrs. Poole. “But before I knew it, the ground crew was out wading through the lake in waist-high gaiters fixing the swan displays,” she said.

“It’s not just one person, and that’s important. We have a team of people with a vested interest in the project and they deserve a lot of the credit,” said Mrs. Poole.

The show costs $10 to $12 per car, and a portion of the proceeds are given to six local charities. Last year the festival raised an estimated $10,000.

“This is a program that anyone can enjoy, whether you’re a toddler or a senior, it can capture anyone’s heart, and that’s unique,” she said. “Hopefully it’s a program that will continue to grow and be a tradition for lots of people.”

Located off of Interstate 270, the festival extends from Oct. 1 to Jan. 31.

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