Salvation Army retreats in Interlochen conflict about red kettle, hot chocolate

Posted Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012  comments  Print Reprints

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ARLINGTON -- The Salvation Army on Thursday abandoned plans to solicit donations near the entrance of the Interlochen Christmas Lights tour after some homeowners on the route threatened to stow their twinkling lights and yard decorations and cancel contributions to the charity in protest.

The nonprofit, known for its Christmas Red Kettle Campaign, had planned to set up a kettle for the second year in the parking lot of a dental practice at Bowen Road and Westwood Drive. The volunteers would also hand out cups of free hot chocolate to families waiting to drive through the display, which attracts an estimated 40,000 visitors each season.

"We had a number of people that said that if we are there, they are not going to turn their lights on," Salvation Army Lt. Patrick Jones said. "That was weighing heavily on me. I didn't want to be the one to kill Interlochen Lights."

Some homeowners said they were concerned that the red kettle station would worsen traffic congestion and that soliciting donations would make it seem that visitors were expected to pay to enter.

For more than 35 years, Interlochen area residents have lavishly decorated their homes and yards. This year's display -- open to the public from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. -- runs Dec. 14 through Christmas Day.

"It is unethical and even un-Christian to hijack one good cause to promote another good cause without consent," resident Ralph Sobel wrote in an e-mail that urged homeowners along the route to contact the nonprofit and ask officials to choose another location.

"How would the Salvation Army react if the American Cancer Society set up without permission in front of every Red Kettle and asked for donations for their cause?" he wrote.

The e-mail and phone call campaign worked.

On Thursday, Jones said the charity would seek a site farther from the entrance.

The Salvation Army is relying on this year's Red Kettle Campaign to raise more than $400,000 to support its homeless shelter, soup kitchen and other community programs and the planned location at Susan Hollar's dental office on Westwood Drive was part of its fundraising efforts, Jones said.

In addition to free hot chocolate, the charity had planned to have carolers and the Salvation Army Band entertain people stuck in traffic waiting to tour the neighborhood.

"We are not just trying to make a dime off what they are doing," Jones said this week before the change of plans.

"We want to enhance people's experience. We want to add a little Christmas joy while you are waiting in line."

'Nobody wants a fight'

Going to see the Interlochen lights is a holiday tradition for many North Texas families.

Cars line up for long distances to enter the northwest Arlington neighborhood.

Traffic snarls are part of the experience. For several years Allen Saxe, a University of Texas at Arlington associate professor of political science and a well-known local philanthropist, largely paid for traffic control after the city slashed it from the budget.

This year the city is again picking up the tab for traffic control.

Visitors have never been charged to see the lights, and the display has also never been affiliated with a specific charity, Sobel said.

"It's our gift to the community," he said.

Last December, Hollar's dental practice agreed to let the Salvation Army set up in the parking lot during the Interlochen display. Volunteers handed out 3,000 cups of free hot chocolate and collected about $5,000 over six nights -- one of 70 red kettle locations throughout Mansfield and Arlington.

But after Christmas, the Lake Interlochen Homeowners Association asked the Salvation Army and Hollar's office not to set up there again because of traffic concerns, litter from the hot chocolate cups and the appearance that the association was somehow affiliated with the charity.

Sobel said association leaders were surprised recently to learn that the red kettle would return.

"Nobody wants a fight. It's Christmas," said Sobel, the association's president. "The negative reaction last year was so clear that we did not expect it to be an issue this year."

The owners of the dental office, who also live in Interlochen, said they saw hosting the Salvation Army event, which included Christmas carolers, as a way to give back to the community during the holiday season.

"We think it's a wonderful charity. When they asked us again this year, we said, 'Let's make it a tradition,' " said Mark Absher, Hollar's husband. "We are happy to give our property."

Neighborhood tradition

In letters sent this week to the Salvation Army, some Interlochen residents wrote that they would not donate to the charity this year or decorate their yards.

"I have made the decision that I will not be putting up the over 18,000 lights that I normally do if the Salvation Army insists on soliciting at the stop sign," one resident wrote.

"We spend over 200 hours setting up the display and over $500 in electricity bills alone so that the spirit of Christmas continues -- not so the Salvation Army can commercialize what has been a tradition for so many less fortunate."

Another wrote: "Our quaint, homespun, non-affiliated and non-commercial neighborhood tradition is more than three decades old. Please leave it be."

Sobel was among those who said they would not decorate in protest.

"My labor is not going to be used to collect charitable donations for a cause I did not give consent to," Sobel said. He said it usually takes him 10 days to set up the decorations he's collected for 16 years.

Though Salvation Army had received some phone calls and letters this week from upset residents, Jones said, the charity had also received donations from Interlochen residents who support its cause.

Eighty-six cents out of every dollar collected goes toward services in the city, he said.

Jones said he realized that the Interlochen homeowners wanted the charity to succeed in its fundraising efforts -- just not so close to their celebrated event.

"I felt it was all or nothing for them. Now I realize they are willing to negotiate," he said. "We want to go back and take a look at a couple other locations a little farther out.

"We are going to put our arms around each other and make it work."

Sobel said he was relieved that the Christmas controversy appeared to be resolved.

"We are trying in good faith to help the Salvation Army make the most money they can without interfering with the almost 40-year-old tradition," Sobel said.

Susan Schrock, 817-709-7578

Twitter: @susanschrock

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