WHEELING - The Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce has "Friday Night Lights" on its mind - not of the gridiron variety, of course, but those of the annual Perkins Restaurant & Bakery Fantasy in Lights parade.
The annual Friday night extravaganza of marching bands, dance troupes, costumed characters - and, who could forget, jolly old St. Nick - will light up downtown Wheeling once again Nov. 22. While most are trying to squeeze the last little bit of life out of summer, the chamber currently is hard at work preparing to usher in the Christmas season for the 28th straight year.
The 37-member committee tasked with organizing the parade has been meeting since January - analyzing what worked last year and what didn't, and brainstorming ways to make the parade a true "entertainment event." And thanks to a host of generous sponsors, according to chamber President Terry Sterling, this year's parade budget exceeds $50,000.
annual Perkins Restaurant & Bakery Fantasy in Lights Parade is set for Nov. 22 in
"Our chamber loves doing this event. We can't compete with Macy's or the Tournament of Roses Parade," Sterling said. "But there are ideas we can take from those parades, and we have done that."
For the first time this year, the evening will open with an hour-long pre-parade concert at the corner of 14th and Market streets.
The chamber will announce the entertainment lineup at a later date.
"We're doing this to encourage people to come downtown as early as they possibly can," Sterling said.
Continuing with the West Virginia statehood sesquicentennial theme, the parade also will feature floats celebrating the 150th anniversary year of the Mountain State's birth in 1863. And there will be a number of both local and national icons on display during the parade that should appeal to spectators young and old.
Sterling said the chamber continues to focus on safety when planning the event, which will draw thousands from around the valley to downtown Wheeling. With such a large-scale event involving moving vehicles, electricity and young children, the chamber spends thousands each year for insurance coverage and legal counsel to figure out the best way to keep hazards at a minimum.
This has led to a few rule changes over the past couple of years that Sterling acknowledges have been somewhat unpopular but are necessary to protect both participants and spectators.
The major change this year is "pull trailers" no longer will be allowed in the parade. In reviewing video footage of last year's event, Sterling said, the sight of such trailers packed with 20 or more small children who easily could have fallen out onto the street stood out to committee members.
"It's a safety and a liability issue for us. Some of the entries were putting their young people into these pull-trailers - in our opinion, with very minimal adult supervision," Sterling said.
Coupled with last year's rule change prohibiting children younger than 8 from marching in the parade - which led some entries to put their younger participants on the pull-trailers - Sterling said the pull-trailer ban gave some people the impression the chamber was barring children under 8 from participating whatsoever. That is not the case, he stressed.
"We encourage people to have their young people in the parade, as long as they're on an approved float," Sterling said.
Once again, parade participants are prohibited from throwing candy, flyers or any other object from their floats during the event. The chamber had asked entrants to avoid doing this for several years, but decided to make the rule change official last year after it became apparent that approach wasn't working.
"A lot of people didn't like it, but everybody complied with it - and I think it was a much safer parade. ... I can't tell you how many close calls there have been over the years," Sterling said.
Due to time constraints, the parade only can accept 90 of the several hundred applications for entries it receives each year. Although the committee must turn down a large number of hopefuls, Sterling noted the competitive nature of the application process helps them keep the event fresh each year.
The deadline to apply is Oct. 1. The application to participate in the parade is about a dozen pages long, and requires a detailed description of the proposed entry, including photos if possible. Each organization with an entry is required to have a representative at a pre-parade informational meeting.
Sterling noted in the past, he's had people call him the afternoon of the event trying to get a float in the parade. But it's not as simple as many think, he said.
"This takes time," Sterling said.
In addition to Perkins, sponsors for this year's event include Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 141, West Virginia Northern Community College, Panhandle Cleaning and Restoration, First Choice America Community Federal Credit Union, Ohio Valley Medical Center and East Ohio Regional Hospital and the Ohio County Commission.