Bruce Brenon has a simple explanation for why he and two of his employees flew from Southern California to Billings in the middle of a cold snap to install tens of thousands of lights on trees outside the historic Billings Depot.
“It’s really hard to train people over the phone,” he said.
Jennifer Mercer, outgoing director of the nonprofit depot on Montana Avenue, had a bit different explanation.
“His spirit of generosity just blew me away, from the first time I talked to him,” she said.
However it happened, Brenon and his crew, Steve Vieira and Fernando Sanchez, went to work Wednesday morning, planning to wrap five trees around the depot in about 10,000 LED lights each before the depot’s largest fundraiser of the year, the Taste of Billings Black Tie Gala, on Saturday evening.
They are being assisted by Grant Fagg, the owner of Outdoor Lighting in Billings, and some of his employees. On Thursday, during a wedding at the depot, they all plan to hop over to North Broadway for the afternoon to work on a smaller lighting project at Seva Kitchen, a restaurant owned by depot board member Harvey Singh.
Mercer, who ends her seven-year run at the depot next Wednesday, has been working for several years on the “Montana Avenue Magic” project, which aims to wrap every tree on Montana Avenue in lights and hang wireless speakers from each one as well, in hopes of inspiring community pride and stimulating tourism.
The depot project is the first phase, Mercer said, “something that could really highlight what this could do for a city.”
After finding out that nobody locally had any experience with large-scale, permanent light installations on trees, Mercer recalled the Christmas light display she’d seen in Dana Point Harbor, Calif. And when she learned that that display was created by Brenon and his company, Shine Illumination, in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., she gave him a call.
Her thought was that he might be able to provide some consultation for a local company, but Brenon, unwilling to coach by phone, offered to come to Billings and donate all of his labor and that of his crew.
“Bruce is from a very small town in the Midwest and his spirit of community is still so strong,” Mercer said. “Without his help we would never have been able to have this project completed.”
The depot, which has been raising funds for the project for years, paid to bring Brenon and his crew up from California, and it is covering their expenses while they’re in town.
Mercer also arranged for Brenon and his crew to visit Yellowstone National Park on Monday, and on Tuesday they all went skiing in Red Lodge with Blake Wahrlich, revenue manager for Best Western ClockTower Inn, where the Californians are staying. Blake’s father, Steve Wahrlich, owns the Clocktower and is also on the depot board.
When Mercer and Brenon were making arrangements for the trip, the forecast was for temperatures in the high 30s and low 40s. When the California crew arrived in Billings, temperatures were below zero, and it was even colder in Yellowstone National Park.
“The fact that they still came here and are doing this — I’m so impressed,” Mercer said.
Brenon said the kinds of lighting projects he normally does are “built more on social media,” meaning they are the kind of thing that inspires people to take photos and share them with their friends. One of his most popular projects was the elaborate “Merry Kiss Me” display, also in Dana Point Harbor. Hundreds of photographs of people kissing in front of the display were posted on Instagram and other social media.
Few of their displays are static, Brenon said, and most of them have twinkling LED lights — “not a lot of movement, but just enough to draw your attention to the building. Our company is designed to have more of a ‘wow’ factor. … We want to do things we’re really proud of.”
Fagg said he was enjoying the opportunity to learn something new from Brenon and his crew. Fagg has owned Outdoor Lighting for 19 years and has done the Christmas lighting at Rimrock Mall for seven years, but the “Montana Avenue Magic” project takes things to a new level.
He said he is especially excited about the possibility of expanding the project all over the downtown. Right now most of his work is centered on Christmas, and he has just one year-round employee, he said. If the larger project takes off, he said, he might be able to hire three to four year-round workers.
The Taste of Billings Black Tie Gala on Saturday will help raise money to expand the lighting project as well as pay for refinishing doors on all four historic depot buildings, Mercer said.
You can buy tickets to the gala, or just make a donation to the depot, by going to www.billingsdepot.org.