When paltry strands of lights went up on the boulevard trees and along the pergola in downtown St. Paul's Mears Park early last month, John Mannillo could think of only one thing: Charlie Brown's pathetic little Christmas tree.

This at a time when Rice Park, framed by the Ordway Center and St. Paul Hotel on the other end of downtown, was a vision of luminous splendor.

But in three weeks, Mears Park has made a comeback on the holiday-lights front. The Lowertown Futures Fund stepped in with a $10,000 donation -- spurring contributions of $10 to $50 apiece from 14 individuals -- and the city scraped together $10,000 to help out.

Something good has come of something that could've been a negative, said Mannillo, chairman of the Friends of Mears Park: "It actually looks pretty nice," he said.

In a way, however, Lowertown created its own lighting crisis.

For at least the past six years, city and business officials say, funding for lights that grace downtown's parks have been raised from corporate sources and other entities. Until the prospect of a darkened Mears Park became known, no one from that part of downtown was believed to have tossed any money into 2007 coffers.

And those who give expect the trees to be lit -- simple as that.

Funding squeeze

At the Capital City Partnership, which spearheads the annual lighting fund drive, contributions are down, although no one's saying by how much.

The drop was significant enough, however, for the mayor's office to step in to ensure that Kellogg Park, between the Mississippi River bluffs and Kellogg Boulevard, was lit this year -- for about $46,000.

"But there wasn't enough [money] for Mears Park," Bob Bierscheid, the city's parks director, said this week.

St. Paul began relying heavily on non-public funding of its holiday lighting costs when the state began cutting local government aid to cities, he said.

In recent years, the entire lighting budget for all downtown parks, plus a few others, had totalled about $100,000 per year.

Between 2000 and 2007, the Capital City Partnership had raised about $400,000 for the cause, spokeswoman Sue Gonsior said Friday. But each year, she added, the task "gets a little harder." Still, she said, "we didn't say, 'No lights in Mears Park.'"

But with priorities established elsewhere, and overall funds dwindling, the Mears Park blackout was shaping up as the likely result.

No holiday 'schlock'

For Mannillo, who with others takes care of Mears Park, the lighting push began with the stringing of lights on the 8-foot perimeter trees, which when lit "made it look skimpy," he said.

Soon, area residents were placing angry calls and e-mails with parks officials and staffers for City Council Member Dave Thune, who represents downtown. Bierscheid responded with an offer of city funding, provided Lowertown could deliver, as well, and it did, in the form of the Lowertown Futures Fund contribution.

Work on the park was completed this week, Mannillo said, and although its tallest trees are bare, he's pleased with the lighting of birch trees along a park stream.

He also noted the presence of a herd of artificial reindeer, which he had picked up and which parks workers assembled and spread about the park "naturally," he said, so as to avoid the appearance of "Christmas schlock."

In the future, Gonsior said, the Capital City Partnership plans to work more closely with Lowertown to avoid a repeat of this year's lighting scare.

Mannillo, for his part, is proud of the results: "It could be better," he said. "But we did what we could afford. And I think we did a good job."

Anthony Lonetree • 651-298-1545