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First Night forever a wash?

Rain pummelled the New Year's Eve shindig, so the next gig needs money, and fast.

By SHARON L. BOND, Neighborhood Times Business Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- Organizers say St. Petersburg has seen its last First Night unless they can raise at least $50,000 by May.

The downpour on New Year's Eve ruined the 2002 event, forcing organizers to use most of First Night's savings to pay bills.

"We've got about $10,000 in the bank," said Pat Mason, who has directed the family-oriented, alcohol-free New Year's Eve celebration since it began in St. Petersburg 10 years ago.

"This past Dec. 31 was St. Pete's last First Night unless the organization raises money fast," says an e-mail appeal sent out recently by members of the First Night board of directors. First Night is a nonprofit organization run mostly by volunteers.

The e-mail urges those interested in saving the celebration to send in $10 if they had planned to attend but stayed away because of the rain.

"And if you planned to bring a guest, send $10 for their button, too. Or send a tax-deductible donation of any amount." Buttons are what organizers call First Night tickets. They are supposed to bring in enough each year to pay for half of the celebration.

The 2002 event cost $125,000. The money goes to pay artists and rent stages. Many of those bills already were paid by the time of the celebration. Mason said it took $25,000 from savings to settle accounts because ticket sales were only a quarter of what they were the year before. First Night emphasizes local arts as a means of ushering out an old year and welcoming a new one. It offers ticket buyers various entertainment, including music and dance, plus children's activities and two fireworks shows.

Organizers count on sales of tickets not only to pay bills but leave money in the bank to begin planning the next First Night. Money for the celebration also comes from state, county and city grants, and sponsors' donations.

Most of the buttons are sold between Christmas and New Year's, Mason said. This past year adults were charged $8 and children 6 to 12, $5.

When Mason looked at the seven-day weather forecast on Christmas Day, she thought the rain would not arrive until New Year's Day. "I was thinking we were the most fortunate people in the whole world." Then came the forecasts showing the storm arriving earlier. The downpour started just as First Night activities were getting under way.

"It poured like someone was pouring a pitcher of water on your head," Mason said.

New Year's Eve 2000 also was a casualty of the weather. That year, cold kept people away.

Mason said organizers are planning a fundraiser in addition to the e-mail appeal. She believes that if those two efforts bring in $50,000, First Night could continue.

"We need operating money for the rest of the year. I wanted to try to build up a one-year savings account, $100,000 in savings. But I guess I better give up on that dream," Mason said. "If we can just operate from year to year the way a lot of arts organizations do, that is the way we will operate."

First Night is a national celebration that started in Boston in 1976. Many of St. Petersburg's performance venues and attractions on First Night are outdoors on the waterfront.

The First Night application for the state grant for New Year's Eve 2003 had to be in last fall. Organizers should hear in the next couple of months if First Night got a state grant and how much it is. State grants are judged on the merits of the arts projects proposed, not whether money is needed. For 2002 the state contributed $6,000.

Mason said the absolute deadline for deciding "go or not go" on this year's First Night is the end of May.

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