December 8, 2019

Winnipeg
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City looking at other options for annual Xmas tree tradition

The tradition of the towering spruce Christmas tree donated, decorated, and put up outside of Winnipeg city hall for 55 years has been cancelled in the wake of an unprecedented autumn storm that ravaged the city's urban forest.

But some don't want to let the lights go out on the custom.

It wouldn't be practical to send city workers to chop down and light up a healthy tree, while so many crews — including municipal and private arborists — are still working daily to clear trees felled and damaged during last month's snowstorm, Mayor Brian Bowman previously said.

On Wednesday, the mayor suggested anyone capable of donating the time, expertise, and equipment necessary for the municipal Christmas tree project should instead help out with storm-recovery efforts, which have been projected to take months and cost tens of millions of dollars.

For 55 years, Winnipeggers have been donating a large Christmas tree to the city, which is decorated and put up outside of city hall each holiday season. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

For 55 years, Winnipeggers have been donating a large Christmas tree to the city, which is decorated and put up outside of city hall each holiday season. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The city Christmas tree "isn't a priority right now," Bowman told reporters.

"It’s something I know a lot of us really look forward to, but the idea of pulling those bucket trucks away from the crews that are out there in our communities... to put a tree up at city hall... I think this year, obviously, we need to do something different in light of the resource requirements," Bowman said.

"We’re actively looking at other options. Hopefully, we’ll be able to provide you with some clarity on that in the coming days."

The decision may seem "Grinch-like," but the City of Winnipeg declared a state of emergency in the wake of the snowstorm and needs all hands on deck, said Matt Vinet, manager of Green Drop Tree Care and Prairie director of the International Society of Arboriculture.

His crews have been working 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week, since Oct. 10, the night before the storm brought heavy snow that weighed down trees and caused widespread wreckage.

Over 9,000 lights are normally used by city crews to decorate the trees. (Ken Gigliotti / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Over 9,000 lights are normally used by city crews to decorate the trees. (Ken Gigliotti / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"To the average citizen right now who's driving down Portage Avenue or Main Street, it looks like it's all over, but it's not, it's far from over. There's so much stuff out there that's got to be dealt with that I can't even make an estimate of when that would be (done). It's too overwhelming," Vinet said.

Crews are still backlogged clearing the most hazardous hanging tree limbs, many of which have cracked and frozen since the October snowstorm.

"If there's people qualified enough to lift a 60-foot Christmas tree into place with a crane, we should be getting them to do something else, because there's lots to do still," Vinet said.

Putting up the Christmas tree, which is traditionally donated by a local resident, costs the city roughly $30,000 a year, including picking the tree, renting cranes and semi-trailers, security, and decorating, Public Works spokesperson Ken Allen wrote in an email.

Although the city hasn't kept clear records on whether the tree has been put up every year since the first in 1964, it has asked annually for a spruce tree that meets specific requirements: 12 to 15 metres tall, "fully symmetrical with a single trunk and no brown needles," and must be planted in the donor's front yard.

The mayor usually lights the tree at a ceremony, which might not happen this year. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The mayor usually lights the tree at a ceremony, which might not happen this year. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press files)

This year, public works is looking into buying an "alternative tree" to set up at city hall, Allen said.

If so, at least one local business owner would step up.

For the past 20 years, Charles Wiebe has built his business on the joy of holiday decorating, and says he wants to help the city keep up tradition. The owner of the Christmas Light Guys uses a bucket truck to decorate trees up to 60-feet tall for his clients.

"It's important to people, and I think there's still a chance to try and salvage it and make something happen," he said. "In terms of some of our time and efforts to try and pull something together, I think we'd be willing to go the extra mile there and try and help them out.

"In the grand scheme of things it might seem insignificant. But tradition is important, and it really has a lot of value to people."

— with files from Aldo Santin

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May
Justice reporter

Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.

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