If there’s one motto David C. McKnight has taken to heart in his decades of event planning, it’s that life’s big moments — from starting kindergarten to marrying the love of your life — deserve celebration. His Emerald City Designs is a leading special events company that provides a range of services, from spectacular floral arrangements to stationary for the invitations. He’s spent 30 years building his business, but the joy of celebrating never gets old.
“I love attending events still to this day,” McKnight says. “When I get invited to a wedding, whether or not we’re producing it, I get so excited. I still love getting dressed up.”
McKnight’s attire is joyful even on a regular weekday: On the day we connect, he’s sporting groovy large white-rimmed glasses, a colorful floral blazer, and vibrant green Vans slip-ons. He’s had a strong sense of personal style for as long as he can remember. “When I was in elementary school, I wore ties. I was the kid who set my clothes out the night before the first day of school.”
He believes commemorating milestones is important “because we don’t know where we’re going to be tomorrow.” He learned this firsthand through a life-changing friendship that led him to create the KIDSgala Foundation. Its mission: to give kids who’ve been through adversity — such as illness or the death of a parent — the party of their lives.
McKnight grew up in metro Detroit. In 1993, he was in his early 20s and working at an information technology company when two colleagues asked him to assist with a 50th birthday party and a wedding. McKnight enjoyed hosting themed parties at his house and helping his co-workers with their events, so he decided to make event planning a career.
For the next 15 years, McKnight built his business from scratch. In 2009, when he attended his 20th anniversary reunion at Lake Orion High School, McKnight was one of the busiest event planners in metro Detroit.
At the reunion, he reconnected with Shelly Lang Burton, a high school friend at a time when McKnight’s penchant for dressing up made him a target for bullying. “Shelly would be the gal that would say, ‘Stop, don’t do that.’ She was my protector,” McKnight says.
As the two caught up at the reunion, Burton shared that her 5-year-old child had cancer. McKnight said, “Well, I have to meet your daughter.”
He became close with Burton and her family, offering support, visits with his dogs, and access to his backyard pool while Nicole persevered through years of chemotherapy, radiation, and a bone marrow transplant. A bright and precociously confident girl, Nicole remained positive and resilient through her illness.
“She was a spitfire, in a good way,” McKnight says. “When she’d had her chemo treatments, she always wanted to wear colorful wigs so that she could put smiles on the other kids’ faces.”
McKnight realized he could use his event planning expertise to celebrate Nicole’s life. “I said to Shelly, ‘I think Nicole needs some kind of party. There’s something good that can come out of this.’”
The idea grew from throwing one party for Nicole to throwing more parties for kids in similar circumstances.
“Taking [David] to Children’s Hospital to see the kids who were receiving treatment for cancer, getting blood transfusions, it opened his heart,” Burton says. “He wanted to do something to make these kids happy.”
As Burton puts it, “KIDSgala takes that one day, that one moment, to put a smile back on that child’s face, put a smile on the family’s face. Many people don’t understand, when your child is going through something that is earthshaking, that is changing them to the core, that can take their life away, all you want as a parent is one more day of a smile, and that’s what KIDSgala provides to these children, to these families.”
Tragically, Nicole passed away on Nov. 8, 2013, a few days before her party, and the foundation’s first gala became Nicole’s memorial luncheon. But her spirit lives on in the mission of KIDSgala, which will have thrown 82 parties by year’s end.
These “gifted celebrations” for children undergoing life-altering and life-threatening experiences are the perfect merger of McKnight’s party-planning skills with his desire to make kids happy. Recent parties include a superhero extravaganza at Dave & Busters for a child with cancer; a dance party for a teenager caring for her young sisters after their mother’s death; and a Steampunk-themed Sweet 16 for twin sisters, one of who was battling childhood cancer.
“Nicole always wanted to please others,” McKnight says. “So we’re taking [inspiration from] her personality when we put on these parties. She’s there and sharing so much love with so many children.”
Burton agrees. “What continues to help me on the days when my heart breaks the most is just knowing that she’s still doing good and she’s still touching hearts and making kids smile the way that she smiled through her whole treatment.”
McKnight’s business resources and his decades of experience not only make the KIDSgala events possible, they are essential to planning the foundation’s annual fundraiser and coordinating the day-to-day management with his fellow board members and volunteers. He is quick to credit the success of both his business and foundation to the people he works with.
Emerald City Designs’ staff now numbers around 60 people, many of whom have been with the company for decades. The team’s massive Farmington Hills studio has a showroom with dozens of beautifully set tables, a large back room for floral arranging, and a 16,000-square-foot warehouse for storing all the other event essentials. All the flowers, equipment, and rentals, along with the bustling staff, give the studio the feeling of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory — or perhaps the Land of Oz is a better comparison.
“Growing up, one of the things that was always resonant for me was the thrill of watching The Wizard of Oz,” McKnight says. “During my high school years, there were a couple different times we played off the movie for our homecoming theme.” When it came to naming his business, “I thought, ‘Emerald City — that’s a good place to go for your wishes, your dreams.’”
In addition to his work at Emerald City Designs and KIDSgala, McKnight enjoys spending time with his husband of 20 years, Jim, and supporting several other charitable foundations — especially when it gives him a chance to dress up. At a recent luncheon for the charitable organization the Suite Dreams Project, he wore a bright yellow short suit (meaning the suit pants were shorts). On Halloween and Christmas, he’s donned costumes ranging from the Mad Hatter to the Grinch.
Whichever hat he wears, McKnight channels his passion into every event he throws. “It’s about having those moments of those smiles, those tears, whether a client is receiving their bridal bouquet or parents or grandparents [attending a KIDSgala event] are seeing the children’s joy. It’s about emotion for me. I’m one of the most sensitive people; I cry at the drop of a dime. I think sharing emotions is very important and very healthy.”
This story is from the November 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.