by Laura A. Russo
Since 1995, Julie Palermo, Executive Director and former President of the Roosevelt Island Chamber of Commerce, has been the sole person responsible for organizing and installing the Main Street holiday lights. Now, Palermo says she is about to retire.
Palermo says that, while President of the Chamber of Commerce from 1995 to 2005, the lights were “a natural extension” of her duties. “Before I started this tradition, there was nothing on Main Street,” she noted.
At first, Palermo said, she wasn’t aware of her responsibility. “A dear friend and active member of the [Roosevelt Island] community, Faye Vass, came to me and said, You have to do something,” Palermo said. “Main Street looked so dull. Once the lights went up, everyone loved it.”
At the time, Palermo remembers, merchants on the Island were doing very well and everyone was happy to donate. Each light involves a $250 rental fee. At the beginning, 32 lights decorated Main Street.
But the 2008 economic slowdown hit Island merchants hard, and the number of lights had to be cut back to 14. While there wasn’t nearly as much money, “people still donated what they could,” including individual residents and families. “Even if it was only $50, people gave because no one wanted to lose the lights,” noted Palermo.
Over the last few years, with merchants struggling financially, Palermo said she began to focus her fundraising efforts on the building management companies and the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation. RIOC sponsored lights on four Main Street poles.
Palermo also said that it was around this time that RIOC began to put up holiday lights in Southtown. “I was doing the work in partnership with RIOC... I was really happy, it was great to see the Island so beautiful.” But, over the past few years, Palermo started to think about retiring. “After 20 years, it’s about time,” she said. “I am so grateful to the merchants and the residents who trusted me with this responsibility,” she said, but added that, as a member of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA) Common Council in addition to her day job as a chef and her other volunteer work, the fundraising and organization of the Main Street holiday lights is a huge commitment.
Now, she’s worried about who, exactly, will take the reins.
“Since we don’t have a lot of merchants, RIOC should really take responsibility,” Palermo said, adding, “This is especially true since RIOC purchased lights for Southtown, instead of renting them last year.”
Palermo was shocked to find out that RIOC began to purchase their own lights for Southtown. She said that, while working together, both parties discussed the possibility of purchasing the lights rather than renting, to maximize purchasing potential. “If we worked together, it would have been so much easier.” She says RIOC did not inform her directly; she found out inadvertently when making rental arrangements.
Palermo is moving forward with her plan to retire, although there is no confirmation that RIOC will take over the responsibility. “If RIOC doesn’t do it, who will?” she asks. “There is no one else.”
Palermo feels strongly that Main Street can’t be without the holiday lights. She asked, “If RIOC can put up holiday lights in Southtown, can’t they put them up on the rest of the Island?”
Palermo hopes to get confirmation from RIOC about taking over the holiday lights in the coming days. Until then, there is a danger that a holiday tradition will come to an end.