City in the dark on First Night

Anne Arundel: Annapolis' mayor and council should support alcohol-free New Year's Eve event.

October 01, 1999

YOU MIGHT think Annapolis Mayor Dean L. Johnson and the city council would recognize the value of First Night Annapolis.

Apparently, they don't.

The festival, which annually transforms office buildings into performance halls, gives the region a sober alternative to New Year's celebrations. It enlivens the state capital with dancers, singers, musicians, poets, children's activities and food, but no booze.

The event -- held in other forms across the country -- has become a beloved tradition after only a few years, drawing roughly 20,000 participants. Unfortunately, the city is threatening the viability of First Night. It is demanding dramatically higher fees for space and services to the gathering without considering its marketing and promotional worth, not to mention its literally sobering effect on area roads on New Year's Eve.

Last year's event cost the city $15,000. The city billed First Night about $5,000 for police overtime and cleanup. Last winter, however, the city enacted legislation establishing a fee structure that would bill the event as much as $35,000.

Unfortunately, this arrangement has forced organizers to flee city-owned sites such as the central City Dock and City Hall and use instead the U.S. Naval Academy and other county locations.

Baltimore nearly made the mistake Annapolis city officials are making when it raised fees for the popular St. Patrick's Day Parade six years ago. Happily, the city worked out an arrangement with parade officials.

Annapolis might take a cue from Ocean City, whose officials know a bit about marketing and tourism. The town recently kicked in $250,000 to promote its four-day "Sunfest." Ocean City Mayor James Mathias reasoned it was "just a part of doing business."

First Night Annapolis is a showcase for the city. Mayor Johnson and the city council are foolish for failing to recognize that.

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