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  • Jordan D. Smith

Light it Up: Behind the Scenes of the Downtown Portland Lights

If you happened to be driving through downtown Portland on Friday evenings you may have thought you unwittingly stumbled onto the set of a Hallmark Christmas movie complete with blinking lights and Christmas music.  While lights in the downtown have been a fixture since Opera Block owner Tim Fuller first lit up his properties and those of several neighbors 6 years ago, this years’ display takes it to a whole new level. Spearheaded by Fuller and his crew, the 100 and 200 blocks of Kent along with part of adjoining Bridge St are now lit with permanently installed lights around the windows and roof lines.  What really sets the show apart though is the addition of music!   

What started with about 6,000 lights in years past has expanded to 20,000 lights across several dozen buildings.  The whole show is controlled from a desktop computer in the Opera Block Performing Arts dance studio.  On this computer, software reminiscent of video or audio editing programs allows the various lit up buildings to be programmed to sync with the music.  This computer networks to 17 other mini computers controlling other stretches of lights across the rooftops.  Along the west side of Kent Street, the buildings are connected end to end with the computer control panels on each roof allowing each individual property to be lit up individually in time to the music. 

To connect to the east side of Kent Street, and to buildings south of Bridge Street,  Fuller’s team built a closed wireless network that relays the signal from one side of the street to the other.  On each building, light wiring was matched as best as possible to the exterior and permanently installed with brackets on each bulb.  It would take most of a day just to do a few windows according to Fuller, especially where mounting brackets were installed into masonry.  The bulbs are currently incandescent bulbs but with plans to switch to LED in the future.  The quality of LED Christmas bulbs currently is not up to snuff in terms of durability, according to Fuller. 

Always the tinkerer, Fuller admits the setup is not perfect.  For instance the slight lag time inherent in a wireless connection between the two sides is an issue, though not especially noticeable. However with the downtown road project slated for spring 2024, Fuller hopes to be able to bury lines to connect it all via wires for a seamless connection.  The same goes for buildings in the 200 block of Kent which are currently not synced up to the music but on timers.  Also, if upgraded to LED bulbs in the future color could be added to the show.  The electronic control infrastructure is essentially the same as you might find in an auditorium with the ability to program and add on in the future such as lights that project onto the road during a parade, or across the facade of a building.

Over 30 business and property owners in downtown were invited to join in, and nearly all did, with the hope that more will join in next year.  The Kramer Building and Portland’s City Hall along with some businesses on Maple Street have expressed interest in joining the project for Christmas 2024.   The whole project took Fuller and his crew about six and a half weeks to complete starting in October and wrapping up for the big reveal at Holiday Fest earlier this month.  The effort really paid off, with people coming downtown on Friday nights in recent weeks to enjoy the lights and, to the delight of downtown businesses, lingering for dinner or a drink.  Fuller, took the opportunity to have a soft opening the past few Fridays during the light show for his 118 Proof speakeasy.  The upscale cocktail bar is slated to open with full hours in mid-January. 

Fuller says he has yet to find any other similar lights in other towns anywhere.  The closest comparison he has found is Rochester, Michigan which has a static colored light display across their downtown, but not synced to music.  That distinction makes Portland, as far as we know, unique.


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