Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Nathan Bentley, the namesake and founder of the Bentleyville Tour of Lights, formally announced Wednesday afternoon the popular holiday display will return to Duluth's Bayfront Festival Park this winter "with some major changes."

This year, instead of exploring the light display on foot, guests for the first time will be offered the opportunity to drive through it. Bentley said 8- by 12-foot, three-ply hardwood mats will be laid end to end to create a roadway through the park, while protecting the grounds from damage. He estimates the temporary path for vehicles likely will cost $25,000-$30,000 to construct.

Bentley thanked Mayor Emily Larson and city staff for helping his organization piece together a plan to safely reopen the holiday attraction from Nov. 1 to Dec. 27.

"This is not going to be a perfect scenario, as far as how Bentleyville is going to be run. But it's taking the challenging situation in our lives today and trying to make the best out of it," he said.

The holiday light display remains a major tourism draw, Anna Tanski, president of Visit Duluth, said.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

"I can't emphasize enough, beyond the economic activity that this generates within our community — which is over $20 million every year — we do anticipate that will look different this year, because of how we had to adapt. Again though, it goes beyond the dollars. This event puts Duluth in the national spotlight for media coverage and exposure," Tanski said.

Bentleyville will miss out on parking revenues and on-site sales of memorabilia with the new setup. Bentley said corporate sponsors facing their own economic challenges have also proven less generous this year.

Consequently, he said the formerly free event will charge admission for the first time this year. As guests wait to enter, he said, vehicles will be staged in a line snaking throughout the parking lot of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. Each vehicle will be charged $10 to enter Bentleyville.

But Larson said accommodations will be made for families who can't afford the admission.

Bentley said his volunteers are looking to partner with other organizations to provide rides through the holiday display for people who do not have access to a vehicle.

As is customary, guests age 10 and younger will receive free Bentleyville stocking caps and cookies, although this time from a window-side Santa and Mrs. Claus.

To get in the holiday mood, guests will be able to tune their radios to a dedicated frequency playing a festive Bentleyville soundtrack.

Bentley said his volunteer crew still plans to put up an impressive display that includes a 108-foot metal tree bedecked with swirling light patterns. In all, Bentley estimates nearly 5 million lights will be used to decorate the park.

As part of an agreement heading to the Duluth City Council on Monday, the city would charge Bentleyville no fee for its use of the park. A resolution to be considered Monday notes that the event "annually draws in excess of 250,000 visitors to the park at a time when tourist visitation to Duluth is otherwise slow."

If the resolution passes, the city of Duluth would agree to pick up the tab for the electricity used at Bentleyville — around $10,000 in recent years.

Bentleyville would bear most other costs, including the installation and maintenance of portable toilets, snow removal, any needed police presence and trash collection and disposal. Bentley said the event has operated with about a $450,000 budget in the past.

He noted that the event will continue to serve its philanthropic mission, too. "We're still going to collect food and toys for the Salvation Army, as this year it's probably more important than ever that the public comes forward and donates what it can," Bentley said.

Instead of selling Bentleyville merchandise on-site, as he has in the past, Bentley will move those retail operations to Grandma's Sports Garden in Canal Park come mid-November. He said the nearly 10,000-square-foot venue should offer plenty of room for masked shoppers to safely space out from one another.

Larson praised Bentley and his crew for their determination.

"This is a really good example of multiple people coming together with the best and highest purpose in mind, which is: How do we continue to provide some joy and opportunity for families and people to have special time this winter?" Larson said.

"When so much is feeling disrupted and thrown off and pulled out from under us, we still have this light experience."