String lights highlight a street in downtown Oklahoma City's Bricktown. Lawton Enhancement Trust Authority plans to take the first step in a similar project for downtown Lawton in January.

String lights highlight a street in downtown Oklahoma City's Bricktown. Lawton Enhancement Trust Authority plans to take the first step in a similar project for downtown Lawton in January.

Lawton Enhancement Trust Authority (LETA) is spearheading a project to change the lighting system downtown, converting what is now harsh LED lights on metal power poles to softer lights that will complement new (but old-fashioned) string lights. Ward 4 Councilman and LETA Chair Jay Burk said LETA didn’t meet its Christmas goal, but expects to complete the conversion of the 500 block of Southwest C Avenue in early 2020.

The City of Lawton and Public Service Company of Oklahoma took the final steps in the plan earlier this month, agreeing to designate five metal light poles between Southwest 5th and Southwest 6th streets to the City of Lawton. While the original plan was to completely remove the lights and incorporate the poles into the string light system, today’s plan is to exchange the existing harsh lights with softer ones that, combined with the string lights, will keep streets safely lit.

Community Services Director Richard Rogalski, who said the project will fit well with other planned upgrades, went downtown to measure how much light would be available from the string system and found it was darker than what he was comfortable with — hence the change.

“We’re doing it two ways,” Burk said, of softer lights on power poles that will complement the string lights without overpowering them.

The string lights have settings for a variety of colors, meaning city officials can change the colors to highlight special events such as Christmas. Burk emphasized the commercial quality of the lights, saying they are crafted for outdoor settings, come on heavy metal cable that can withstand Oklahoma wind, and have a 10-year warranty. The lights, which look like handblown glass, are similar to those used in downtown Chickasha and in Oklahoma City’s Bricktown.

“I saw them there (Bricktown), and fell in love with them,” Burk said, adding that the fact the manufacturer is based in Oklahoma City also was a selling point.

LETA always intended to tackle the project in phases, selecting one or two blocks as a pilot project, erecting the lights, then using the result as a vivid illustration to solicit donations for more lights. The light was estimated at $24,000 a block.

Why start with the 500 block of Southwest C Avenue? Rogalski said this first strand of string lights will be powered from the nearby traffic signal light. Donations — many from local businesses — funded the first block and Davis Construction has offered to install the lights, at no charge.

“We couldn’t have asked for better,” Burk said, of the cost savings presented by Davis’ offer. “We want to get the first set up and show everyone what we’re doing. Honestly, once people see them, they’re going to want them all the way down the street.”

When members first voted on the project, the plan was to hang the lights along Southwest C Avenue from Southwest 2nd to Southwest 7th streets, then start looking at side streets. While LETA members wondered aloud about Southwest 4th or Southwest 6th streets, Burk has his eye on a longer route.

“Let’s go all the way down on 2nd Street, then left onto Ferris and all the way across the park,” he said.

Burk has no doubt the project will achieve its goal: bring new life to downtown. He’s talked to people who have seen it happen. He said he and his daughter were in downtown Nashville and noticed something as they were out walking.

“People swarmed where these lights were. Streets with no people on them — there were no lights,” he said, adding that observation was confirmed by a not-very-busy ice cream shop owner who was eagerly waiting for the lights to be installed on her block. “Lights bring people downtown and they stay there. It was the atmosphere; people were looking for a destination.”

And, LETA sees the lights as complementing plans city leaders already have to breath new life into downtown, through events such as Ware on C and plans by the Lawton Farmers Market to build an indoor facility on the site of the old city hall. That’s why members want to get it right.

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“We hope to revitalize our downtown, and that would bring more mom and pop types of businesses,” Burk said. “If we don’t do something, it’s gonna die. That’s not the look we want. We have to do something now.”

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