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When West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder joined Santa Claus, the Utah Grizzlies mascot and Valley Fair Mall officials to throw the switch and light the Christmas tree outside, it symbolized the hope of not just the season, but possibly the entire year of 2011.

"The mall is critical to our city," Winder said. "When it's complete, it will employ 900 people, and it's a huge revenue driver for the area."

Certainly the tree is an investment in the mall's future. It is 44 feet of glimmering, shimmering lights beckoning customers from all over the region to shop here instead of other regional malls in Salt Lake City or Murray.

With more than 800,000 square feet of retail space and a combination of indoor and outdoor stores, the Valley Fair Mall is betting it can lure dollars and generate sales-tax revenue for West Valley City — which is still expanding, albeit at a slower rate than pre-2008 levels.

In January, the mall began its expansion from about 600,000 square feet to its current size of more than 800,000 square feet.

Jonny Arbuckle, vice president of development for the mall, said by next year, the mall will expand to more than 1 million square feet. Symbolically, it also hopes to have the tallest Christmas tree in Utah — topping out at about 55 feet high. "We couldn't get the extra 10 feet this year," Arbuckle said. "It just wasn't in the budget."

But this year's lighting ceremony is a big deal for the regional mall. It's the first time since the mall opened in 1970 that it's had any kind of extravaganza such as Saturday's.

It featured Valerie Cameron, a radio host from Radio Disney 910 AM, as well as an a cappella group singing Christmas carols. Free hot chocolate was served to the shivering crowd, and the mall coordinated with the Utah Food Bank to have people bring canned food items.Mall officials are now contracted with Brite Nites, a Utah-based company that outfits most cities and malls with trees and corresponding lighting ceremonies, for next year's tree lighting as well. Winder is hopeful the mall will be finished with its expansion by then.

Jennifer Hamelin, general manager of Brite Nites, said the tree for Valley Fair was hauled in on two semi trucks and weighs 3,750 pounds — not to mention a 4,000-pound base to keep it from toppling in the sometimes heavy winds that can gust through West Valley City. The tree took 500 man-hours to put up and features 96,000 lights that are synced up to four computers that control the animation aspects of the tree while music plays. The lights are also LED, meaning they use only 10 percent of the energy of traditional, incandescent strings of lights.

Hamelin said the tree's musical, animated sequences will run regularly throughout the holiday season. —

Plans for the mall

The mall is expanding from 600,000 square feet to 800,000 square feet. It is hoped the work will be completed in time for the Christmas 2011 tree-lighting ceremony.