Do I have better things to do than write this letter during the Holiday Season? Yes, but I think this is also the perfect time to remember others … especially those in our community who are families of low income. That’s why The Missourian’s Dec. 25 front page story "First Night Columbia offers new venue, aims for family fun” hit me hard and calls for a response.
On the surface, Columbia’s First Night sounds like fun and an opportunity to experience a variety of cultural events aimed to celebrate community and the birth of the New Year. However, the price of the "button" results in excluding many of our families of low income (and even many middle-income families) because the admission fee is unaffordable to them. This would not be so offensive if it were not so heavily taxpayer funded. On Nov. 3, 2008, the City Council again voted unanimously to allocate $29,000 to First Night. ... And this cash contribution does not even include the taxpayers’ in-kind support of buses, police, fire, and sanitation crews, wages paid to parks and recreation personnel, and the use of public buildings.
Concerned citizens have tried to meet again with the First Night Board, but, for the past two years, board leaders have consistently refused to even sit down and talk about what could be done to improve access. I and others have likewise appealed to our City Council members, but they have not improved access to all.
The best solution would be to do what places like Austin, Texas, does with their First Night Celebration … they open up all music and art events (seating is “first come-first served”) and produce a truly uniting celebration for all in the Austin area. If this cannot be done by next year and, if Columbia’s First Night Board still intends to obtain taxpayer funding, they should at least make more buttons available for free and advertise in all their promotional materials where and when these would be available for families where button cost is a barrier. Even though asked for in the past, it has not happened. Both last year and this year they have also refused requests from Neighborhood Associations within the First Ward and other nonprofit organizations who wanted to give buttons to very needy families they personally knew.
Columbia’s First Night event, in the heart of the city, falls short of a key holiday message — that all are to be included and welcomed. In contrast, on this first night of a new year, the event sends a cold, negative message that “some families” can participate and “other families” cannot.
What kind of a community do we want? Potential attendees, business sponsors, Columbia City Council members, First Night Board members, volunteers, as well as Boone County, church, and school officials (who make their buildings available for First Night use) should think about what they are saying to our families who have very limited financial resources, reassess their participation and act to turn this divisive scenario into a truly uniting celebration.