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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

After high tariffs led to cancellation of Chinese light festival in Spokane Valley, organizers are regrouping

Visitors sit by the Spokane River as Riverfront Park is filled with brilliant light displays for the Chinese Lantern Festival on Sept. 25, 2015, in Riverfront Park. The festival organizer hopes to revive the festival in Spokane Valley in 2020, under a different name. DAN PELLE (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

After visa issues and the U.S. trade war with China held up a Chinese and Christmas light festival planned for this winter in Spokane Valley, organizers are regrouping in hopes of holding a multicultural version of the event next year.

The biggest version of the festival drew about 80,000 visitors and was held in Riverfront Park four years ago, when organizer Sam Song was acting director of the park. The Chinese Lantern Festival drew praise from across the city.

Song said the planned festival in Spokane Valley in late 2020 will feature more large-scale Christmas lights displays, Chinese lanterns and a dragon display. It will be called Northwest Winterfest.

If everything comes together, organizers of the new festival say some light displays will be multiple stories tall, there will be holiday displays from other cultures, and area multicultural groups will decorate a Christmas Tree Village.

Song said he was pleasantly surprised that Spokane’s population, which is more than 80% Caucasian, embraced the previous Chinese Lantern Festival and that he plans to incorporate even more traditions from other cultures.

Song had hoped to hold the festival this winter, but immigration policies and 30% tariffs on Chinese goods have made it more difficult for Chinese artisans to travel to the U.S. to create the displays. It has also made the ornate displays the public saw in 2015 far more expensive.

Song said he hopes the trade war between the U.S. and China will end before he purchases lights. He estimates it would add $50,000 to $70,000 to the cost of Chinese lights.

“I was betting on an election year,” he said. “Most people are not in favor of the trade war. We as Americans have to pay for the tariffs. It’s not the Chinese, we all suffer.”

The festival, which was supposed to begin this November, will instead go from the end of November to the end of December 2020. This winter, there still will be some smaller events between Black Friday and Christmas, but the bulk of the celebration will happen next year.

The overall budget for the light show is about $900,000. Song said he is working on sponsorships and partnerships with local organizations. Song and fellow organizer Charity Doyl also applied for funds from the city of Spokane Valley. Song asked for $75,000, which he hopes will be enough to cover tariffs, if they are still in place.

Lance Beck, president of the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce, said he plans to meet with the organizers in a few weeks and may have a seat on the steering committee that will organize the festival.

He said he’s supportive of starting a festival during peak retail season and the planned location, Mirabeau Meadows Park, is a central location close to retail, especially the Spokane Valley Mall. Beck also said he isn’t aware of any similar events close to the scale of what Song and Doyl are planning.

“It would be unique to the region if they’re able to pull it off,” he said.

Beck said he’s still waiting on details from other organizers but is glad the festival is staying in the Spokane area and that organizers want to host it in Spokane Valley.

Song said he’s had a good experience working with Spokane Valley’s parks department and that Mirabeau Meadows Park has parking and is easy for people from east and west of Spokane Valley to access. He said most community members and local government officials he’s approached have been supportive of the proposal and that he plans to incorporate Spokane Valley government staff as well as the Chamber of Commerce into planning.

This winter, Song is planning a smaller light show at the Mirabeau Park Hotel and Convention Center, with the help of Lee Cameron, who owns the hotel. That light show, planned for the last weeks of December, will feature Zodiac animals from China that are 2 to 4 feet tall. Song is also planning a multicultural Christmas Tree display for NorthTown Mall this holiday season.

He’s also planning on recognizing Kwanzaa and Hanukkah and envisions next year’s festival as a celebration that will bring people together and introduce children to cultures different from their own. He said he hopes the event will become an annual tradition that his own daughter, who is 15 months old, will be able to attend growing up.

“The political environment is dividing people and it is our goal, with this event, to bring people back together,” he said. “Personally, I want to bring fun, bring culture and bring education to the little ones, which will change a generation.”