A drive through downtown London during the Christmas season is definitely a trip well worth the gas money.
The white lights and pine bough clad flower pots with large bright ornaments along Main Street are offset by the colored lights on the trees in front of Cumberland Valley Bank and make downtown London a holiday scene in the making.
The newest addition to the downtown decorations is the newly purchased Christmas tree that is a focal point in the Town Center park. Despite the ongoing controversy surrounding the price of that tree, Town Center has already become a hubbub of activity this year.
The scenery bordering the back of the park offsets the large tree featuring lighted designs that change according to the rhythm of the Christmas music emitting from that $80,000-plus tree. The decor makes a photographer's dream, which has already been proven by the large number of people gathering for family Christmas pictures.
While the new Christmas tree might seem quite pricey to most, the reality of the situation is that the tree was purchased with city tourism money - money that is required by Kentucky state law to be spent solely on tourism projects. That additional 3 percent tax on every restaurant and drive-thru purchase made within London City Limits funds the city tourism commission, whose job it is to utilize that money to entice people from other areas to come to London. The expenditures of tourists boost the local economy through the purchase of food, gas, clothing or other items from the area, thus helping London and Laurel County's revenues.
There have been many posts on social media and phone calls to The Sentinel-Echo regarding how the cost of that tree could have been used in a more effective manner. Suggestions have included funding for the homeless shelter or feeding the starving children of this community. But, under Kentucky law, those efforts are prohibited through the collection and distribution of tourism money.
Other individuals and groups, however, have stepped up to provide for the needy in the community. The Kentucky State Police collected over 9,000 pounds of food over a two-week period on behalf of the starving children in the area. Both the city and county police officers sponsor "Shop with a Cop" while the Kentucky State Police sponsor "Shop with a Trooper" - shopping sprees for needy families, identified through the school systems' family resource centers. Schools host food drives to assist in the efforts. Businesses host coat and toy drives while churches and individuals collect food and gifts and sponsor families throughout the area. From personal experience of witnessing these events, the needy families who fall into the lower income brackets are well-cared for during the holiday season.
The true needy families are the working people on low income who rise just a few dollars above the poverty level. These are the people who work and struggle with finances daily, wondering how to juggle their electric bill with the food they need for their families because they do not receive food stamps and food baskets every month. These are the people who let bills go during December so they can purchase some meager gifts for their families, and more than likely, are the same people who also purchase food items to donate to less fortunate who as often as not, are just as able to work as they are - and whose government sponsored living exceeds what the average working person counts as monthly income.
I wonder how many of the people who have criticized the purchase of the Christmas tree expenditure have actually donated an item for the food drives - to help the people for whom they seemingly are so concerned during this time of giving. I wonder how many of those who have dogged the city leaders for their Christmas tree purchase have bought a toy or given a coat to the many donation sites across the county. I wonder how many of those who are uninformed about the spending of the restaurant tax (city tourism money) rather than give to the homeless shelter have donated there themselves? How many have sacrificed a meal with their families to donate to a charitable cause? Or how many of those complainers have ever taken a meal to a homeless family living in a tent in several areas of the county that they have commented on when criticizing the purchase of the Christmas tree?
While the $85,000 Christmas tree is quite a price tag, it is not a one-time usage. As an artificial tree, it can be used year after year and has already brought visitors from other areas - thus increasing Laurel County's revenues and making it easier for the continued donations to the needy families in the area by local businesses, individuals and government agencies.
The Christmas tree and its festive decorations at Town Center park are an added bonus to the London and Laurel County area. We are the role model for other communities with our progressive attitude. Our inaugural New Year's Eve party has already been copied by other cities who never hosted such a party prior to London's event last year. Our World Chicken Festival is touted as one of the best festivals in the state. Our Battle of Camp Wildcat brings people from across the region each year. We highlight local artisans at Farmers Market and the Community Center frequently. We are one of few areas in this region to host a Laurel County Fair with noted entertainment, as well as a Homecoming event that honors its own people. All of this is possible through the city tourism tax money and donations from businesses and individuals.
London and Laurel County is innovative and progressive and we the citizens of this area should be grateful that we have leaders who want to see our city as a tourism center rather than just another small town in southeastern Kentucky.
I just hope that next year we can add an ice skating rink to the back section of Town Center park for a truly memorable winter experience.