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Shining bright: Olympia family creates light display that isn’t just stunning illumination – it also encourages community

You definitely can’t miss Whitney and Luke Bowerman’s house, heading up Southeast 10th Avenue in Olympia.

On a spreading corner lot, a landscape of holiday lights twinkles from blocks away: magenta trees with lime trunks, red thickets of candy canes, a sky of giant snowflakes hanging from one tree and a 26-foot-tall striped candy cane resting on another.

But this isn’t just a lights extravaganza. Come closer, and you’ll notice other things: neighbors wandering the paths up to the porch, a cute red kennel for food bank donations, a playhouse-size Cookie Shack, where on some nights locals meet, chat and drink hot cider. There’s even a Facebook page and website. Because the Bowermans have deliberately built their lights display not just to show off, but to build community.

“We all live in this age when we’re really worried about privacy, and I think that’s a problem,” says Whitney, playing with her toddler on the living room floor. “We’re so into our cars, everything (feels) scary. It’s nice to get out, to get some fresh air and meet people…If we build that and foster it more, people will see there’s a lot of good in the world.”

And for a 43,000-light display, the Bowermans lightscape — “OlyLightstravaganza,” as they’ve called it on their website Olylights.com — hasn’t taken all that long to build. Luke Bowerman had been a keen lights enthusiast in middle school, creating his mom’s display and vying with neighbors to be the best, and after some down time in high school and college, he met and moved in with Whitney — and discovered she had the same passion.

“My bad habit came back,” grins Luke.

After one year of moderately decorating their former house, Luke built them a bigger one on their current lot at Southeast 10th and Central Street, just east of downtown Olympia — and they began to do lights in a big way.

Switching to LED to save power costs and reduce energy consumption, they started buying commercial-grade string lights (which last longer) from online suppliers, where there’s more color choice and availability. But they still hunted the sales for items such as the hanging 3-foot snowflakes, the mid-size candy canes and the twig-bushes that fill every raised bed.

They found mini vintage-looking Santas at a garage sale, and scored three light-up Christmas trees for the porch at Goodwill. Luke built the 26-foot candy cane from plywood, also building the food-donation kennel with a secure top for cash donations, the Cookie Shack and a set of stylish white reindeer pulling a glowing sleigh. He even built a 6-foot replica of the Tumwater brewery building, and this year added some paths that wind between wildly-colored shrubs and the river of blue light draped over their rock bed.

Whitney baked dozens of cookies to give out, started a Facebook page for the yard and Luke — a software developer — built the website, which has an embedded map, a calendar of Cookie Nights and links to the Twitter and Facebook feeds.

Now, three years after they began, the Bowermans’ light display is creating its own community. On the first cookie night this year, they gave away 20 dozen cookies and three gallons of cider to about 200 people. Last year, they received $800 cash and 600 pounds of canned donations for the food bank.

“That’s what’s so cool about it — people get out of their cars, congregate and meet each other,” says Whitney.

Becky Homan was one of the locals walking around the display last Tuesday with her husband and kids. She’d heard about it through Facebook, and was there for the first time.

“It’s awesome,” she says. “They put a lot of detail into it.”

With every bush covered in color, a forest of tree-shaped strands in the upper corner and even lights advancing up the hill on the neighbor’s fence, the Bowermans plan to keep adding lights and replicas of other Olympia landmarks.

Scott Harper, in Tacoma, knows all about getting the lights bug. He’s been decorating his house (now on South 67th Street) for 20 years now, and is up to 7,500 LED lights. They take him two weeks to put up, but he starts shopping in September for the giant inflatable snowmen and Santas, Nativity scenes, candy canes and strings that decorate his corner lot.

“I add about 1,500 lights each year,” Harper says. “It’s kind of an addiction.”

Like the Bowermans, Harper’s display draws visitors. But what he’s noticed is that it also spurs his neighbors to start their own displays.

“They’ve added more since I moved here,” he says.

Not that it’s an easy job creating light shows this big. The Bowermans began putting strands up Nov. 1 this year, taking around 50-70 hours to mount everything while their 2- and 4-year-olds are napping. When they take it down, each strand has to be dried on the floor before being wrapped up and stored in the garage. Luke even built an extra eave to store the bigger pieces.

But with LED, the display actually doesn’t take that much power — around $80 a month, they estimate — and it’s all controlled through an app on Luke’s phone, which also sends him texts if the motion sensors pick up something. Even putting the lights up is a communal thing.

“We invite friends around, feed them pizza and beer and we all put up lights,” explains Whitney.

And in all this time, they’ve only had a couple of problems from visitors in their yard.

“Our privacy’s kind of shot – that’s one of the deals with all this,” says Luke. “ But the vast majority of people are really great.”

The biggest challenge, say the Bowermans, is lighting up 1/3 of an acre with two young kids in tow.

“Let me be clear about this — this is not easy,” says Whitney. “It’s actually insane. But it’s also fun.”

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