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Brooke Hall, Founder and CEO, and Justin Allen, Creative Strategist, at What Works Studio, concept designers behind the vision of Light City. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz).

Light City festival: High risk, with potential for high reward

When Brooke Hall and Justin Allen came up with the idea for Light City, they were looking for a way to showcase Baltimore’s creative talent and innovative spirit. But after the year the city’s had, the local business and tourism community is hoping the event will also change the conversation about Baltimore.

Hall and Allen, who run What Works Studio in Baltimore, are active in the city’s arts and business communities and wanted to promote that aspect of the city. They turned to major events such as South by Southwest in Austin and Sundance Film Festival for inspiration as events that transformed their host cities.

After doing some research, they came across Vivid Sydney, a large-scale light, music and ideas festival in Sydney, Australia, and they envisioned it in Baltimore.

“The more we looked at this, the more we said: This is so cool,” said Hall.

The festival’s organizers are promoting the March 29-April 3 Light City as the first large-scale light festival in the United States.

“No one has done at it at the scale that we see it around the world,” said Hall, while acknowledging that there are small light festivals in the U.S. that are more positioned as pure art festivals.

Light City’s program includes artists, musicians, entrepreneurs and a range of guest speakers. All of the events will be free and open to the public, except for Light City U, a speaker series, which will be ticketed.

Visit Baltimore, the city’s tourism arm has high hopes for what Light City can do for Baltimore’s tourism industry.

“For me, it’s how we’re going to kick-start our tourism season going forward,” said Visit Baltimore CEO Tom Noonan. “It could be some of the best parts of our tourism season.”

Visit Baltimore has been promoting the event outside the Baltimore area, including an ad in the New York Times and ads in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Because this is Light City’s first year, a lot of figures are unknown, including the number of people expected to attend and the festival’s economic impact. But Noonan said officials have seen a lot of traffic on websites trying to book rooms around the same dates as Light City. Analysts will collect data during the festival to give organizers a better idea of what to expect next year.

The budget for Light City has been a moving target for the past year, fluctuating between $3 million and $4 million. The most recent budget is $3.8 million, said Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, the festival’s producer. The festival has raised just under $3.4 million so far.

“We’ve got a little bit of a gap,” said Gilmore, adding that organizers are still trying to cut back on costs.

The event has 38 sponsors who have each donated more than $25,000; 57 cash sponsors; six university partners; and eight foundations, said Gilmore.

The biggest financial investment organizers had to make was about $1 million to hire artists and fund their projects.

“We really took a leap of faith,” said Gilmore.

The state Department of Commerce has given some money for the event, and the city is providing support through police, fire, transportation, solid waste and recycling.

Businesses around the harbor are inviting employees and clients for receptions during the festival. The National Aquarium is also hosting special events around Light City.