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things that work

The Lumiere Whale in Morton Park is pictured at night in Vancouver, British Columbia on December 17, 2016.Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail looks at businesses, services and other projects in British Columbia that aren't often talked about because they actually work.

Bulb by bulb, Alex Urquhart's dream of using the magic of light to transform Vancouver during the Christmas season is slowly taking shape.

With the recent flip of a switch at the Bloedel Conservatory, the Vancouver Park Board took a big step in that direction, illuminating the dome and water fountain that sits atop Queen Elizabeth Park. It was the latest example of Mr. Urquhart's work and it added 30,000 LED lights to the dazzling displays his teams have been building in the city over the past four years.

"We did Bloedel, we did Granville Island, we did the 28-foot whale at Davie and Denman. We did the 45-foot tree outside Pacific Centre Mall and also we did the 26-foot ball that is opposite there in the plaza at Nordstrom's," said Mr. Urquhart, who is managing director of MK Illumination Canada Inc.

Those specially designed pieces, which the company describes as "tailor-made experiences that connect with people's emotions," are adding a new degree of lustre to the long-established and more traditional displays in Stanley Park and VanDusen Botanical Garden.

"Traditionally, people in North America wrap lights around branches. We try to do focal points and build out from there," Mr. Urquhart said.

Vancouver is starting to look brighter and more magical, but it is not yet the sparkling city of light he'd like it to become.

"When you try to convince people, you find Vancouver is quite conservative. They look at you as if you want to do it like a strip joint in Vegas. And you go, 'No, no, we don't do that,'" he said.

"It takes quite a long time to just convince people [a big display will work] because they are so conservative. Then they see it and go: 'Ahh, now, I see!'"

With each installation, Mr. Urquhart said he gains new fans and hopes that eventually there will be enough feature displays to create a glowing web of light at the heart of the city.

In Europe, MK Illumination – which designs, builds and installs special lighting displays globally – has lit up the cores of Stockholm, Copenhagen, Zurich and other cities.

"We do these huge projects … where we do the whole town. We call it destination lights," said Mr. Urquhart, who understands the magnetic drawing power of lights.

"We've done towns where they get back every dollar spent [on lights] because people are out going to restaurants and to the bar and going to stores. So I'd like to be able to do that in Vancouver," he said.

"We can actually move people around [the city] by putting installations in. We say let's draw them down this street and let's draw them down that street. And it's really fun to do. And then we sit down and say, 'There's too many people going down this street,' so we move the installations."

Planning for a complex installation takes more than a year. Mr. Urquhart said he typically begins work in October on displays that won't be in place until December of the following year, about 14 months later.

The framing for displays, the interconnecting light strings and the bulbs are built in a plant in Slovakia. The display at Bloedel Conservatory took a crew of five nearly a full week to install.

"There were some big issues," he said. "It was a really difficult job to do but I think we kind of nailed it. It's a conservatory with parrots and birds in it so we have to make sure whatever we do … doesn't upset the birds, which are very nervous."

Mr. Urquhart spent so much time at the Bloedel Conservatory during the complex installation that he got to know some of the 200 free-flying birds inside the dome.

"I spent three nights until 1 o'clock in the morning talking to parrots. It was lovely, but bizarre. There was this parrot there that just kept looking down and saying 'peek-a-boo,'" he said.

Mr. Urquhart said it is always a special moment when a switch is flipped and an intricate light display goes on for the first time.

"I used to think it's [magic] just for children. But it's not. It's for everybody," he said. "Peoples' reactions are lovely. People just stand there. It's 'wow.'"

When the illuminated whale near Denman and Davie was turned on, a homeless man with no shirt said to him: "A whale. I love it man."

Outside Nordstrom Pacific Centre, a crew of four spent 10 hours installing the glowing ball that sits in the public plaza. There's a tunnel through the centre of the ball and unobtrusively dangling from the ceiling is a twig of mistletoe.

It just took moments for Mr. Urquhart to get confirmation the installation had worked.

"I'd just turned it on and there's this guy and this lady and the guy is kind of a bit fed up because he's been following his wife shopping and he just saw the ball. He walked through it and then came back and told her 'I want a kiss.'"

That kiss between harried shoppers inside the glowing ball made Mr. Urquhart smile. On a dreary December night, he'd helped evoke the spirit of Christmas.

Vancouver's Union Gospel Mission served 3,000 people in the Downtown Eastside a hearty meal of turkey, mashed potatoes and all the traditional sides. That's an epic undertaking the mission has delivered for 76 years.