Committee pushes for free First Night event

Wednesday, December 26, 2007 | 8:46 p.m. CST; updated 3:50 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

This story has been changed to correct the spelling of Laurie Lewis.

COLUMBIA — There’s going to be a party for Columbia on New Year’s Eve, but a group of residents is worried that not everybody will be able to go.

The group that wants Columbia’s First Night celebration to be free is finding resistance from the nonprofit organization that has put on the party for more than 10 years.

The Free First Night Committee is a coalition of agencies and associations that serve lower income residents. They say that the $8 admission fee to a taxpayer-subsidized event is unaffordable for many middle- and low-income families.

“Being ‘left out’ risks the alienating of families, causing many to conclude that some people ‘count’ more than others,” the committee wrote in a letter to news organizations.

Members of the board of directors of First Night Columbia say the event is not set up to be free. They’re afraid of crowding, forcing families to stand in long lines and risk not getting into popular venues. For example, there are only 1,000 seats available for this year’s headliner, Grammy-winning musician Laurie Lewis.

“When it’s overcrowded, people are mad because they can’t get in,” said Karen Ramey, a coordinator for First Night Columbia. “It’s just not a good way to plan an event, and I’ve put on hundreds of events.”

First Night was started in 1976 by a group of Boston artists as a way to end the Bicentennial with a family-friendly, alcohol-free event. It spread across the country, reaching Columbia in 1994. Last year, 12,000 people attended, according to a report First Night Columbia made to the Missouri Arts Council.

This year, the festival will offer 75 performances, plus activities and art at 15 venues in downtown Columbia, Stephens College and The District.

The Free First Night Committee, which began its lobbying effort last spring, concedes it’s too late for this year, but they haven’t given up. At a Nov. 19 meeting, when the City Council was authorizing the $9,000 appropriation and additional city staffing support for the festival, the committee asked that a paragraph be added to the contract requiring the nonprofit group to meet with the committee to plan next year’s festival. The request was not approved.

During that meeting, Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe said she “believed event organizers would take all of the comments made into account to try to ensure that no one who truly could not afford it or could not volunteer was left out,” according to the minutes.

Wednesday afternoon, Hoppe said she had been reassured at the time by City Manager Bill Watkins’ introduction to the measure.

“As in the past, First Night Columbia would provide 800 passes to various social service agencies for distributions to their clients,” the minutes reported Watkins saying. “In addition, anyone who volunteered received a free pass.”

Ramey said about 425 passes were made available to low-income, disabled people and to anyone struggling with alcohol and drug addictions this year, and 175 passes for volunteers, but she declined to identify agencies handling the distribution other than the Voluntary Action Center.

“I can’t imagine that we can’t do better,” Hoppe said Wednesday about the number of passes.

She said the key to having a successful festival is to do it in a size that is manageable, but also make it accessible.

This year’s budget for First Night Columbia is $83,500, Ramey said, with $19,000 from the state Arts Council, $9,000 from the Columbia City Council, $15,000 from the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the rest a mix of corporate and private donations and ticket sales.

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