Eleventh-hour pledges for the annual New Year's Eve fireworks display have taken fundraising more than halfway to the $75,000 minimum needed to stage the Inner Harbor spectacle next month, organizers said Thursday.
"With what we have pledged now, we're comfortable with signing contracts for the barges and the tugboats and putting some of the other elements in place," Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, said Thursday. "We'll wait and see exactly how much comes in before we order the fireworks shells."
The nonprofit has been scrambling for support for the 34-year-old event since spring, when the previous title sponsor, Ports America Chesapeake, said it would not be renewing its contract to stage the show.
Organizers had raised only $17,500 when they issued an appeal for more help earlier this month. That total included a $15,000 pledge by General Growth Properties Inc., owner of Harborplace and the Gallery.
On Wednesday, the owners of the Ritz-Carlton Residences in Federal Hill pledged $10,000. After the Daily Record published a report on the fundraising challenges, the Hilton Baltimore pledged $7,500. With smaller pledges from other donors, the total stood Thursday at $39,500.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake expressed hope that sufficient sponsors would come forward to stage the display again this year. She called the event "a great tradition that I'm sure many in the city and region would miss."
But City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young suggested other needs are more deserving.
"There are a number of special programs that could immediately benefit from support from the business and philanthropic communities," Young said in a statement. "One issue that is dear to my heart has been working to find partners to help the city keep our recreation centers open."
The Office of Promotion & the Arts has targeted hotels, restaurants and other businesses that benefit from the crowds that come to the city for the fireworks.
Organizers say the New Year's Eve Spectacular attracts as many as 100,000 visitors to the Inner Harbor; in a 2009 study, the research firm Forward Analytics found it had a $6.9 million economic impact on the city.
Hilton General Manager Linda M. Westgate said this year was the first time the hotel had been asked to support the event. She called the spectacle "a great demand generator for downtown Baltimore."
"Every New Year's Eve, we host guests who are just so excited about the experience and the camaraderie down in the Inner Harbor," she said. "We don't want to see that go away."
Michael Evitts, a vice president with the Downtown Partnership, said the slow economic recovery has created "a very tough environment to find sponsor dollars."
"Event-specific money is tougher to come by lately," he said. "Most people tend to knock on the same doors. Everybody's out of brilliant ideas about where to go next."
Compounding that challenge, Gilmore said, is that fireworks sponsorship "has always been a tough sell."
"We've been successful in the past with getting companies like Ports America that wanted to do it for the good of it," he said. "It's really hard to get a lot of exposure for something that lasts only 20 minutes."
Gilmore said the experience this year might point to a way forward.
"I think what's going on right now is a step in the right direction, in that some of the organizations and businesses that are stepping up, like Ritz-Carlton, it directly benefits their residents," he said. "Maybe we could set this up as more of an annual contribution in the future, where everybody gives a little to make it happen, and then we can plan on it that way."
Westgate, of the Hilton Baltimore, called it "a great idea."
"We all want this to continue to be successful for Baltimore," she said.