To First Night or not to First Night? That is the question.
Organizers of St. Petersburg’s longest-running New Year’s Eve celebration are seeking input from the public on the best way to revive and continue the event, which sputtered to a halt this year after just shy of three uninterrupted decades.
Between 15,000 and 20,000 people traveled downtown annually for First Night, which encompasses a large swath of the northeast bayfront area, including both Straub Park sites, Williams Park and various storefronts, museums and churches in between.
“We have 25 musical, dance and art acts and performers, and vendors,” said Hal Freedman, board chair for the nonprofit, which is part of a national First Night franchise.
The St. Pete event uses “Art in Unexpected Places” as its tagline.
“There’s always something to do,” continued Freedman. “Sometimes people complain they couldn’t see everything they wanted to see. And that was the plan: Give people enough to do for four or five hours on New Year’s Eve, throw in some fireworks early so people can take the kids home, and throw in more fireworks at midnight.”
All the performers and artists are local, and are paid for their work. First Night employs a paid event director; everyone else is a volunteer.
First Night costs around $170,000 to produce, according to Freedman. The City of St. Petersburg contributes $40,000, but takes back well over half of that for supplying police and sanitation services.
One-of-a-kind, illuminated “buttons,” created by a local artist, are pre-sold for admission to the event. That brings in another $40,000 or so.
The rest comes from sponsors and private donors.
Attendance was down at the last First Night, on Dec. 31, 2021. The previous year, because of Covid, the event was virtual.
Those two shots to the head, combined with a drop in the number of volunteers (many were reluctant to work among large crowds), a significant increase in the cost of fireworks and a dearth of sponsorship money led to the cancellation of the Dec. 31, 2022 First Night.
The City of St. Petersburg stepped in with its own Dec. 31 bash, produced by a local company called Big City Events, on The Pier. A spokesperson said the City scheduled “NYE on the Pier” after the August announcement that First Night had been cancelled.
“I wandered down to The Pier on New Year’s Eve,” Freedman said. “I passed a couple of our Council people, who said the main activity right now is standing on line, waiting for a drink. There was a DJ, a disco ball, a champagne bar, some buskers and a lot of people.
“Over on Bayshore, the parks were empty.”
Something else caught his eye.
“The character was different. There were lots of people in their 30s or 40s, and not as many families. There were some kids, but the kids were now going to be up until midnight because that was the only fireworks. No kids activities at all.”
Said former City Councilmember Leslie Curran, who co-founded St. Pete’s First Night event in 1993: “The whole idea of First Night was ‘A celebration of the arts.’ And since we’re such an arts city, it’s a shame to see just your stereotypical champagne/fireworks New Year’s Eve instead of incorporating the arts. And it also gave local artists an opportunity to showcase their work.”
Both Freedman and Curran wonder if St. Petersburg has grown too metropolitan for First Night.
“St. Pete has a small-town feel, like a village,” Freedman said. “And First Night was kind of a culmination of that.”
Added Curran: “Just because you feel like we’re becoming a big city – which we are – doesn’t mean you just eliminate all those things that gave us that roadway. There’s plenty of room to do both.”
First Night events, contractually, are alcohol-free. All the area restaurants, however, are open – and doing big New Year’s Eve business. Including those at The Pier.
“People are down there for the fireworks,” Freedman said. “Give them something to do while they’re waiting.”
Whatever form a potential overhaul of First Night takes, the organizers believe the “Kids’ Night” portion – games and activities for children under 10, plus the early fireworks show – should remain intact.
Everything else is, well, on the table.
“We really want to know: Do people want this back?” Curran said, offering a suggestion: “I think it would be fabulous if we could make it free, but have the buttons if people just wanted to buy them as souvenirs.”
There are a dozen people on the volunteer committee, she explained. “And it’s not easy to go out and fundraise. Especially when you’ve got your own businesses to run, or anything else.”
Money, perhaps not surprisingly, is a big part of the issue at hand. Although First Night has had major sponsors in the past, including Tom James and Bill Edwards, they tended to lend support for a year or two, or three, and then step aside.
“We either need $200,000 from somebody,” said Freeman, “or we need $160,000 and the City to do the fireworks. Let them do something out on The Pier as one of the events at First Night.
“Maybe they could have a DJ out there. Because The Pier is there – and it should be used. And it’s fabulous.”
Share your ideas on the future of First Night by emailing director Jamie McWade at firstname.lastname@example.org.