Twenty Years of Tree Lighting

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It all started 20 years ago with a group of key leaders led by Edsel B. Ford, II, founding chair of the Detroit 300 Conservancy. The vision was to restore the heart of our Downtown through a world-class public space in honor of Detroit’s 300th Birthday. The Downtown Detroit Partnership (DDP) team led by Bob Gregory supported by Heather Badrak and Tom Parkinson was assembled to execute this vision. Twenty years later, DDP continues to honor and protect Edsel’s legacy gift. 

Campus Martius Park was a total game changer at the time of its dedication, which was Friday, November 19, 2004. This destination became the new annual location for the Detroit Tree Lighting and is home to a custom water fountain that remains active all year-round defying the cold, adjacent to an outdoor ice-skating rink — all constructed in the middle of Downtown Detroit’s main street — Woodward Avenue! 

Based on our special events work with the Detroit Festival of the Arts, Maureen Riley, Mark Loeb and I were enlisted to produce and program the Detroit Tree Lighting. 

Campus Martius Park proved to be just what the community needed, “a new gathering place,” offering a green respite for workers, residents and tourists. Since its inception, it serves as a snapshot of the city’s potential showcasing the renewed focus on development. Inside Campus Martius Park sits the site of Detroit’s point of origin located at 0 miles, where the vision for the city’s plan was originally laid out by Augustus Woodward in 1805. 

The creation of Campus Martius Park took 3 years of intensive planning, fundraising and committed action. Three years after the park’s opening, it expanded following the completed reconstruction of Cadillac Square. 

Bob Gregory, Detroit 300 Conservancy founding president, invited me to remain on the team to develop and produce a summer programming schedule for the 2005 season, the start of the summer entertainment series. I formed NKSK Events + Production and my daughter, Ndidika Vernon joined me in the coordination of events for many years to come. With the continued increase in business development, positive security measures, and with the park’s strategic promotions and audience-pleasing attractions, Campus Martius has become a favored destination by locals and visitors alike. 

In collaboration with local civic, corporate and community partners throughout the city, the DDP has produced and/or hosted some of the city’s most widely celebrated events and programs: Friday Night concerts, featuring local and national acts like Cheryl Crowe, Marley and more; Detroit Jazz Festival; Winter Magic; Fourth Fridays with Ford and much more. This translated to thousands of events since Campus Martius Park’s inception. 

A decade later, the Beach at Campus Martius Park opened. Creating more year-round fun for residents, visitors and tourists. What started as a community gathering of hundreds in Campus Martius Park, evolved into more than 100,000 attendees extending throughout Campus Martius Park and Cadillac Square during the Detroit Tree Lighting. 

Today, the Park celebrates its 20-year anniversary and has been bringing community together and serves as a central point of creating a vibrant Downtown. Today, this transformative space is named #1 Public Square in the U.S. by USA Today. 

It’s been a pleasure being part of this team and being part of Detroit’s history for 20 years and going strong. We look forward to kicking-off the holiday season with you, as we celebrate the Detroit Tree Lighting: Merry & Bright 20 Years of Holiday Lights! 

Njia Kai 

DDP’s event and production manager 

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