First Night deserve support for unique event

April 26, 2000
By Robert Washburn

Groups come before local municipal councils seeking endorsement for events, often asking for money as well. It is hard for politicians to give money each time, but they provide support in numerous ways. Sometimes these are not financial, such as waiving fees or donating building space, among others.

Cobourg council found itself facing a request recently from the members of the First Night committee. It organizes a family-oriented, non-alcoholic evening of entertainment on New Year’s Eve which began about seven years ago. The volunteer group who organizes it has worked diligently to create a popular event. It drew about 8,000 people last year, about twice the number of any previous year.

The event costs about $11,000 annually to run, including the entertainers and artists. It costs next to nothing (about $10 for a family pass). Children don’t pay and teens either attend events at no charge or a nominal fee. About 200 volunteers help organize and run First Night. Next to the Canada celebrations, it is one of the largest attractions.

But First Night is at a crossroads, according to Martin Partridge, the event’s chairman. To continue its success, First Night wants to solidify its finances to ensure the calibre of the events is first class. A large part of the attraction this year was a fireworks display, which account for the huge increase in attendance, he argues.

Last week, council was asked to cover the cost of the fireworks for next year’s celebration. The town already contributes space with the use of Victoria Hall and the market building, among others, for entertainment venues. With all the various contributions, the town also gaves a financial contribution of $15,000. For the past two years, the town was able to contribute drawing money from special funds for the 200th anniversary in 1999 and from millennium celebration budget for this year.

What makes this so urgent is the financial crunch facing First Night. Until now, the group has been able to raise about $8,000 from the sale of tickets, donations and other means. This leaves it about $3,000 shy. Fortunately, the group has been able to use a small reserve fund to cover any shortfall. But all the reserve is gone, Partridge says.

His solution is simple. By building on the current success and continuing to have top rate performers and a good fireworks display as a major drawing card, First Night will grow. The increase in revenue will cover the budget, he says. The town’s ongoing commitment will inspire others in the community to become involved and this will also generate additional revenue.

To not continue will spell certain hardship, he says. Organizers will have to scale down. Any momentum will be lost. The event would trickle along or, in a worst case scenario, be cancelled.

Cobourg is not alone in facing requests. Port Hope council has responded to its various community groups by raising its contributions for this year. Treasurer Barbara Spry said the town is proposing to increase its contribution to Canada Day to $9,000, up from $7,000.  The Olde Tyme Christmas will get $2,000 rather than $1,800.  Float Your Fanny Down the Ganny will see a huge increase to $5,000 in 2000, up from $2,000 this year. On top of all that various sports organizations and community groups will receive a total of $118,000 in 2000 from the town.

Cobourg council contributes financially to Canada Day, about $15,500 for fireworks. It did the same in 1999. It is the only event the town financially assists, says Treasurer Steve Robinson.

There appears to be little hope for First Night. The current budget, if approved on April 25, will not provide any assistance. That doesn’t mean First Night could not appeal, but it will be a tough battle to win. A last minute change, possibly an amendment from one councillor, could save the day.

The town could make a decision after the budget is approved and top up the budget by giving $3,000. This would balance First Night’s budget. The responsibility for generating additional revenue to maintain the calibre of event would be left on organizer’s shoulders. Important momentum would be lost. Politicians could safely argue they helped.

But in a time when the town wants to increase its tourism profile and demonstrate it has first class attractions for people outside the community, First Night would be left behind. There is a real opportunity for the town to add an important family event to its calendar. First Night is the same calibre as Canada Day and it would raise the town’s profile in the winter months. There is no other competition for this type of local, family event in the winter. Without the needed support, an opportunity could be lost.

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