- The Washington Times - Monday, December 31, 2001

On New Year's Eve two years ago, Montgomery County came up with big plans to usher in the new millennium.
The annual arts show, "First Night Montgomery," included the usual bluegrass bands, storytelling, puppet shows, and a midnight fireworks and laser show at the county fairgrounds.
But planners went even further. They threw up a huge heated tent and booked the rock band Little Feat as the headliner, a big-name act for the usually low-key celebration.
Yet only about 10,000 people showed up throughout the night, fewer than the 15,000 organizers had hoped for, said Montgomery County recreation director Gregory Bayor.
In light of lower-than-expected turnout, a price tag that averaged $250,000 a year, and a shrinking budget, Montgomery canceled tonight's "First Night" celebration. It is one of two Maryland communities that have dropped the arts-based New Year's Eve celebrations this year, while others have scaled back on plans to save money.
"We decided not this year," Mr. Bayor said, pointing to budget cuts his department will have to make to break even. "We're really scratching hard."
Montgomery isn't alone. Frederick's "First Night," started for the millennium, won't be held this year because planners only scheduled it for two years. That leaves Annapolis and Talbot County with the only first night celebrations in the state.
First night events are held Dec. 31 in communities across the nation. Towns and cities pay a nominal fee to First Night International, a Boston-based group that helps coordinate the events.
Ideally, people would be able to walk through a downtown area, stopping at shops, plays, art shows and other cultural events in the hours leading up to the New Year's Eve revelry. The alcohol-free shows are billed as family events.
Nationally, about 20 first nights have been scrapped this year by cities with tight budgets and post-September 11 security concerns. Among them are Erie, Pa.; Staten Island, N.Y., and Santa Barbara, Calif.
Organizers say the biggest difficulty is finding money. Municipal governments usually help out, but most first night celebrations are run by nonprofit groups dependent on donations. Large donations from corporations are crucial, said Bob Metz, former chairman of the nonprofit organization in charge of Montgomery's celebration.
"It's supposed to be a public-private partnership. In our area, we don't have any large industry or employer that will step up with huge dollars," he said.
That meant the county was shouldering much of the bill, often more than half, during the six years "First Night Montgomery" was held, Mr. Bayor said. The original intent was for the nonprofit to break even each year, he said. But the county usually had to add about $50,000 on top of the $100,000 it pitched in annually.
"First Night Talbot" will forgo the fireworks that usually cap off a night of entertainment in Easton.
Money for the $12,000 event came in slowly this year, she said, and organizers weren't sure it would be worth having fireworks when bad weather could keep people away.
"We're a small operation to begin with," said Gail Woodall, a member of the nonprofit board that runs the event. "Even if we had the money, we didn't want to do fireworks this year."
Frederick County first tried a first night for the millennium, hiring an outside contractor to put together the events, said Laurie Boyer, a former county spokeswoman who worked on the project.
For two years running, people could see dance exhibitions, get their faces painted at a recreation center and gather for fireworks in the celebration that took place largely in the city of Frederick.
The county only intended to hold two first nights, one on the millennium and the second on Dec. 31, 2000, to mark what some called the true start of the third millennium, Miss Boyer said.
The county spent a total of $92,000 on the two events. Attendance was high the first year, but slacked off the second year, she said.
The shows also put a strain on city services, according to Roelkey Myers, director of recreation for the city of Frederick. It was hard to find recreation department staff to work New Year's Eve at the different sites, and it stretched the police and public works department as well, he said. On top of that, it was bitterly cold last year.
"It's so hard to plan stuff when you don't know what you are going to get weatherwise," he said.
There aren't any cutbacks at Annapolis' long-running first night celebration this year, according to Janice Gary, executive director of the group that runs the event.
Unlike Montgomery, Annapolis has considerable corporate support for the $350,000 event. Attendance that averages around 20,000 also means higher revenues from admissions sales.
The only changes this year are security related, Miss Gary said. Because of restrictions imposed after September 11, four events normally held at the Naval Academy will be moved elsewhere. Also, a red, white and blue sail will be on display at the waterfront to mark the events of the year.
Other first night projects think they know the secret of Annapolis' success. Sure it's a quaint town, said Mr. Metz, but it's more than that.
"It's the water," he said.

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