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[whitespace] Leslie French on Phone
Photograph by Michael Amsler

At the helm: Organizational coordinator Leslie French works to bolster funds for Santa Rosa's First Night, which has been strapped for cash this year after the event fell far short of its fiscal projections.

Party Pooper

Will this be last call for First Night?

By Paula Harris

FIRST NIGHT in Santa Rosa is at a crucial turning point. Whether the New Year's Eve arts and entertainment monster block party, touted by organizers as "the single largest multicultural expression of creativity that takes place annually in the North Bay," will survive past this year remains to be seen.

Arrangements have never run quite smoothly for Santa Rosa's street celebration--which puts the spotlight on local musicians, thespians, clowns, mimes, dancers, and other artists performing in the streets and downtown venues--since its inception in 1995. Miscalculation of attendance, lack of continuous leadership, low levels of sponsorship, and poor weather have all contributed to its rocky history.

Santa Rosa's alcohol-free community celebration of the New Year is modeled on the First Night party in Boston, which began in 1976 with the aim of bringing the neighboring communities of the city together in a joint celebration that eschews drunken revelry while providing the public with an alternative way of ushering in the New Year.

Boston's idea caught on, and now some 200 cities in the United States and Canada have started their own First Night celebrations. But it hasn't been much of a party at times for Santa Rosa First Night organizers.

IN THE FIRST year, organizers researched how the event fared in similar-sized cities and anticipated a crowd of 10,000. It was a gross miscalculation--between 25,000 and 30,000 people showed up. The following year, wary organizers prepared for a far bigger crowd--but the event was practically rained out.

Expected annual growth in turnout never materialized, remaining at a steady 25,000 for the next couple of years. Then last year's "Millennium Madness" First Night event (actually something of a nonevent) almost killed it.

Overspending organizers envisioned hordes of Y2K partygoers. But instead, spooked folks stayed home in droves, a fact that caused many millennium New Year's Eve celebrations across the country to bomb. The city of San Rafael, for example, reportedly lost $1 million on its frizzled extravaganza. The miscalculation in Santa Rosa created a $30,000 deficit in the shaky First Night budget--which doesn't have an operating reserve fund.

Yet, although Santa Rosa's First Night appeared to have withered on the vine five months ago, it's clawing its way back to the streets this year with a scaled-down celebration, an increase in button prices (from $5 to $7), and, according to organizers, a more focused vision.

"Y2K put us in the hole," admits Leslie French, First Night's new part-time coordinator, a job she's held since October. Before French's arrival, the event had been without a coordinator since March, when the previous one, Brooks Leete, resigned after three years on the job.

"First Night is like a business," French continues. "Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. It might take five years to get the event back at full force."

French is working long hours during the final run up to this year's crucial celebration. Volunteers are going through orientation (it takes about 400 volunteers to hold the event), decorations are being prepared, and deals are being made.

"We're trying to work with artists at reduced fees," explains French. "For example, a band that charges $1,000, we're asking to perform for $750 or even $500. It depends on how we can negotiate."

In addition, organizers have cut back the number of artists from 150 to 90, reduced the number of stages from five to three, and scaled down the physical size of the event, which will now center on Fourth Street, from E street to Wilson Street in Railroad Square, while increasing the children's area with some paid activities.

THE ORGANIZERS ARE also attempting to garner more community support for First Night. When some 25,000 people attend the event, only about 18,000 pay for buttons to get into the indoor venues--the other 7,000 or so roam the streets and get to watch free entertainment. "We're looking to close that gap up," says French.

Ellen Draper, board president for the Cultural Arts Council of Sonoma County, the parent organization of First Night, adds that downtown Santa Rosa doesn't have as many indoor concert venues as other cities, so revenue from button sales is lower to begin with.

"While the philosophy of First Night is that it's accessible to all people of all income levels, we're trying to educate the community that purchasing a button isn't just a way to get into the concert venues," Draper says. "It's a way to support the arts in Sonoma County."

In July, community leaders met to discuss First Night's future and decided to scale back. The event had reached a point where the budget required $275,000 cash, increasing to $450,000 with in-kind donations, according to Draper. This year, the budget is $175,000 and increases to $275,000 to $300,000 with in-kind donations figured in.

"We are very in-kind rich," Draper says. "The city provides bus and police services, the printing is donated, and a lot more." Unlike other First Night cities, Santa Rosa does not contribute cash funding. However, this week, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors made a $10,000 one-time contribution through the county's Department of Health Services.

Draper says First Night's main challenge is the need to increase long-term corporate sponsorship to cover costs. That would allow the money raised by the sale of buttons to be used as seed money, creating an operating reserve. "We need to do a better job of recognizing our sponsors so that more will want to join," Draper admits. "We have not done as good a job with that as we could have."

However, organizers have finally been able to scrape together enough donations from businesses and individuals to hold the scaled-down event this year. Notable donations come from Beatle John Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, who is donating prints of Lennon's manuscripts for a countywide schools fundraiser; and from the Charles Schulz estate, which has donated a drawing of Linus by the late cartoonist to be used in a design for the First Night entry buttons.

SANTA ROSA is not the only city to have problems funding a First Night party. The city of Annapolis, Md., was poised to kill its celebration last year until a major corporate sponsor stepped in at the last minute. Lima, Ohio, canceled its party because of costs, and --like Santa Rosa--Edmonton in Canada is having to cut way back this year.

"There have been First Nights that have gone dark, and it's very difficult to bring them back up again, " says Serene Earls.

Earls is president of the International Alliance of First Night Celebrations (the umbrella organization for First Night) and organizer of the first First Night 23 years ago in Boston. She headed up that event for 14 years.

"I hear of financial reasons, but what that really means is volunteer burnout, lack of leadership, and a community not entirely interested in the event," Earls says.

Earls adds that Santa Rosa is at a typical juncture and must re-evaluate its needs, particularly after having changes in management of the event. Barbara Harris, executive director of the Cultural Arts Council of Sonoma County for 10 years, resigned this month.

"In Santa Rosa's case it all started with a big bang and did well," Earls says. "But the more continuity in leadership, the further you're going to go. Each change brings new image building and relearning, and you need very strong volunteer leadership--just one person can't make magic in the community."

Earls says that a First Night celebration thrives if the community is interested enough not to let it go. "The fact that Santa Rosa didn't go dark shows that the community is still interested--otherwise the event would have gone off the map," Earls concludes. "This is an event that pulls the community together. It's the time of year to look ahead. This is New Year's Eve, and with it comes a special set of collective needs of a city and the people who live there."

Meanwhile, Draper contends First Night organizers aren't to blame for the festival's near demise in Santa Rosa. "If there was any mismanagement, it was done out of ignorance and flying by the seat of our pants, not out of incompetence or maliciousness," Draper says. "The event took off like a horse at the gate and we've been racing to slow it down."

Ritzy Washout in San Rafael

It's no wonder San Rafael city officials were red-faced about last year's failed millennium bash. The city had hoped the high-profile, exclusive extravaganza--featuring celebrity rockers Bonnie Raitt and Huey Lewis, a couple of dozen other performers, and a $22,000 balloon drop-- would draw in masses and moola. Instead, the swanky event took a $1.2 million bath with taxpayer money. Rather than attracting the 11,000 partygoers needed for the city to break even, the event drew only 6,100 to pay the $225 to $300 ticket price. The financial loss, which reportedly represented some 2.5 percent of the city of San Rafael's 1999-2000 budget, caused a political uproar between city officials and community leaders. As one city spokesperson put it: "We did it last year to celebrate the turn of the millennium, and I think we'll do it again in 2999."

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From the December 28, 2000-January 3, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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