Bentley pours passion into free Duluth lighting display

Nathan Bentley, the namesake and creator of the Bentleyville Tour of Lights, offers a modest assessment of the massive holiday light display that now occupies Duluth's Bayfront Park.

Bentleyville founder Nathan Bentley. Steve Kuchera /

Nathan Bentley, the namesake and creator of the Bentleyville Tour of Lights, offers a modest assessment of the massive holiday light display that now occupies Duluth's Bayfront Park.

"All it is is a hobby that got out of control," he said.

The son of a Perkins Restaurant hostess and a salesman, Bentley grew up in Duluth's Central Hillside, where his family's light display consisted of a couple plastic candles set up on the porch.

But every year, the family would check out more elaborately decorated homes.

"We'd hop in the station wagon and go out to look at the Christmas lights. And I always thought that was the coolest thing, because back then people really went overboard on their houses," Bentley said.


The displays made an impression on young Bentley and planted a seed of inspiration that would flower years later, when his career as a local businessman took off.

An entrepreneur

Bentley began ordering and selling custom patches from his family home as a teenager and built the business into Medallion Emblem Co.

Bentley's business expanded and he borrowed to support its growth but soon realized he was overleveraged. In 1994, he filed for bankruptcy.

But with additional new financial backing, Bentley took another run at the business by launching Advantage Emblem & Screen Printing, a firm that now employs 36 people at Duluth's Airpark and boasts about $8 million in annual sales.

As Bentley's financial fortunes improved, his obsession with holiday lights exploded. In 2003, he first went public by opening the light display at his Esko home to visitors. The display grew larger when he relocated to a home in rural Cloquet.

But the throngs of people who flocked to see his elaborate Christmas display, dubbed Bentleyville, began to rankle some neighbors.

Listen to Nathan Bentley on the News Tribune's Pressroom Podcast


An invitation

In 2008, Don Ness, who had just been elected mayor of Duluth, reached out to Bentley at a time when city resources were in short supply and cutbacks were the order of the day. As part of his efforts to reduce costs, Ness pulled the plug on a small seasonal light display the city had previously set up at Bayfront Park.

Ness had heard of neighbors' growing concerns about the crowds of people coming to view Bentley's light display and proposed he consider moving the production to Bayfront.

"The win-win was that we wouldn't need to use our staff to put up a display that was largely ignored, and we were able to offer the infrastructure that was becoming a problem for Nathan, in terms of space and parking and the logistics," Ness explained.

Bentley required little persuasion, Ness said, recalling: "When we had the conversation, he immediately saw the potential and was excited about it. "

In 2009, Bentleyville came to Bayfront, where it has returned for eight years running now.

Ness said the level of success Bentleyville has enjoyed came as a pleasant surprise.


"We knew of the popularity of the display at his house. So we saw the potential for it to grow. And certainly anything that draws people into the core of the city and into the downtown, we hoped would be a benefit," he said.

"But it really wasn't until that first year that we saw the type of response there would be. It went beyond people just coming to see a light display. People were coming downtown. They were doing their shopping. They were going out to eat and making it a full night in downtown Duluth. It has had a great impact on our downtown," Ness said.

Kristi Stokes, president of Duluth's Greater Downtown Council, said: "I don't think people realized it was going to be a display of this magnitude and how impressive it would be and that it would continue to grow."

Bentleyville has proven popular with locals and also has drawn visitors from afar. In recent years, the event has been publicized at the Minnesota State Fair.

Stokes sees awareness of the event growing year by year and believes it has yet to achieve its full potential.

"It's something that people look forward to. They see Duluth as the destination to see this magical lighting display. It is something that I think has really put us on the map, but yet there are still plenty of people who aren't familiar with it," she said.

Michael Bilbe of Rockford, Minn., visited Bentleyville for the first time this year with his wife, Rae, and their two sons, and expressed his appreciation for the free event, referring to its creator as "pretty magnanimous."

"It takes a lot to put out the effort to give anybody kind of an impression of happiness at all anymore. He's got a big heart," Bilbe said.


Team effort

Bentleyville operates with the help of 60 volunteers each night during its 37-day run, but hundreds of people also help set up and break down the display.

Bentley refers to a core group of about 45 volunteers as "the red coats," so-called for the Bentleyville jackets they sport.

"Like with anything in life, 20 percent of the people are doing 80 percent of the work down here," he said.

"My face is on the news. My face is in the newspaper, but our success is because of all the people around me. I just get the credit for it," Bentley said.

For Bentley working on the display becomes an all-consuming endeavor for four months of the year - September through January. He credits teamwork for the event's success, recalling some advice he'd received from another famous local entrepreneur, the late Jeno Paulucci.

"Jeno Paulucci said he was not the smartest guy, he just surrounded himself with the best, smartest people. I've always taken that with me, because I'm not college-educated. I'm street-smart. But I've surrounded myself in the business world and at Bentleyville with very good people who have great ideas. And if you treat people well, they want to be part of the success," he said.

Stokes, who regularly volunteers to help at Bentleyville, said people are eager to lend a hand.


"It takes a big team to make this happen, and Nathan is such a passionate dedicated leader that people want to help. I think they see his passion and his vision and they want to help make that a reality, because they see what it means to the community," she said.

Ness said Bentley has inspired support for good reason.

"When you have the right idea and an idea that's ambitious in its scope, people understand intuitively that it can't be done by just one person. And they want to be part of something that is ambitious and that is kind of larger than life. That's what Nathan's idea has provided. I think it's a good reflection on our community that despite kind of the overwhelming nature of what it takes on a volunteer basis to pull this off, that folks have been willing to step up and make it work," Ness said.

Free spirit

Despite all the work involved, Bentley, age 47, says he has no intentions to quit producing Bentleyville any time soon, and he remains committed to charging no admission to visitors, who are routinely offered free caps, cookies, hot chocolate, marshmallows and other holiday treats.

"That's what I think makes the event so unique," he said, stressing the importance of keeping Bentleyville accessible to people of any means. Bentley explained that he views the display as a way to give something back to his community.

"When people come through here, we stress that no one is standing at our donation boxes. If people feel they want to put money in our donation boxes to help keep the event going - fantastic. But if you don't have that dollar or you don't want to donate, you still get the exact same experience," he said.

Nevertheless, Bentley was quick to add: "We're grateful when people put money in our donation boxes. We certainly need money to keep this event going."


Bentley reports the annual operating budget for the event is about $450,000, with much of that coming in the form of in-kind donations of services, equipment and goods. The event is supported by a nonprofit.

Although he has often reached into his own pockets to support the event in the past, Bentley remains optimistic it will become a self-sustaining enterprise.

"Last year was the very first year that Bentleyville was self-sufficient. We had fantastic weather. We had high attendance. People contributed to our donation boxes. Our store did well. Our parking lots did well. So it was the first year ever it didn't need to be significantly subsidized. There's still some subsidizing from my company, but it's not like what it used to be," he said.

Bentley said Bentleyville will forever remain a work in progress.

Some parts remain the same, but Bentley said: "Every year, we invest $150,000 in new displays, so it's always fresh and exciting for people. If it's the same it becomes mundane, and what's the purpose?"


Staff writer John Lundy contributed to this report.

If you go

WHAT: Bentleyville Tour of Lights

WHERE: Duluth’s Bayfront Festival Park

WHEN: Nov. 19 through Dec. 26; 5-9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday


Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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