2014 may be last year for Vernon Hills' light show
Saturday night likely will be the last glimmer for what has become a 21-year holiday tradition in Vernon Hills.
Granted an unexpected return this season, the annual Winter Wonderland drive-through light show on the woodsy grounds of the privately held Cuneo Mansion & Gardens -- among the largest displays of its kind in northern Illinois -- appears to have run its course.
No one will say 'never,' but village officials have all but conceded this will be the finale. Donated to Loyola University Chicago in 2010, the northern portion of the 88-acre property west of busy Milwaukee Avenue has been targeted for sale and development, which would eliminate a good portion of the light show route.
Specific plans have not been submitted, but all involved consider the development an eventual certainty.
"This will likely be the last year as we hope to be under development of the property next summer or fall," said Tim McGuriman, associate vice president for business at Loyola.
The university has invested about $8 million in the property by adding a pavilion for weddings and other functions, and making repairs to the 31,000-square-foot Italianate-style home built for utility magnate Samuel Insull.
"Part of the proceeds (of the land sale) will go back to restoring the mansion. That's why it's kind of a complicated equation," McGuriman added.
"I think we're at the end of the road for the light show," said Trustee Cindy Hebda, who has served on the village board since 1993. "I know the line is long, and we've extended the hours so people can get through."
The village rented displays for the first show in 1994 and supplemented them with purchases from Home Depot.
Last year, 20,827 vehicles -- about 595 a day -- navigated the wooded course flanked by 302 lighted displays, about 185 wooden cut outs arranged in various themes, and adorned with an estimated 1 million lights. Loyola gets 30 percent of the gross proceeds and the village is allowed to store the displays in trucks and trailers on site.
Trustee Barbara Williams, who has served two stints on the board for a total of 25 years, including four as mayor, said it appears to be the end of what has grown into a renowned activity between Thanksgiving and early January.
"There's always hope, but I don't think it will happen," she said. "It's very sad, as far as I'm concerned."
The first light show was held in 1994 based on an idea from Ed Laudenslager, former public works director, and crew leader Gene Schroeder.
"There's really only three of us left who will have done it since Day 1," Schroeder said. "I think it will be a sad thing for Lake County."
Public Works Director/Village Engineer David Brown said the light show has become a holiday fixture.
"It is something that people look forward to and their kids ask about," he said.
So what about next year? Barring another reprieve, the village is considering several possibilities, such as grouping some of the displays at various locations in town like major intersections or public buildings. Whatever happens it will be "nothing like the extravaganza it is now," Williams said.
"I'm optimistic," added Hebda. "David Brown and his crew are pretty creative."