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First Night could be free to community

Sunday, December 30, 2007 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:51 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

The mission statement of the First Night Columbia celebration gets to the heart of what a community festival should be about: “To unite the community through a shared cultural celebration, to deepen and broaden the public’s appreciation of the visual and performing arts.”

(For information on First Night and the many diverse cultural performances scheduled, check firstnight.missouri.org.)

Yet, as concerned citizens, we know that for many families of middle- and low-income, this event is not affordable. Unfortunately, the increasingly popular and heavily taxpayer-subsidized celebration is perceived by some as a private party meant only for people with money.

A model for removing this economic barrier is Austin, Texas. All of Austin’s events are free for everyone. (Check out www.firstnightaustin.org.) A large array of sponsors, along with volunteers and in-kind contributions from businesses and the Austin municipal government, provide enough funding to cover costs of their celebration.

To assure order and safety at each venue, the fire marshal determines how many people can be present at the indoor performances. The beauty of this system is that no one’s admission is determined by socio-economic class.

We believe Columbia can do the same.

In spring 2007, with the goal of pursuing a free First Night for all, concerned citizens met with the First Night Columbia volunteer board, but the board decided to keep the same admission policy.

Our Free First Night Committee continued to look for other concerned individuals and organizations but realized time was too short to try to change the 2007-2008 New Year’s Eve celebration into a free event.

The First Night Columbia board noted that 800 free tickets are available for families unable to afford the admission fee (regular admission is $8 until 4 p.m. Dec. 31 for those 8 and older; $10 day of the event).

Our Free First Night Committee requested that this information be publicized prominently in all advertisements for this year’s event. The First Night board did not commit to any advertising concerning the free tickets, and, to our knowledge, none has been done. Two organizations, the Ridgeway Neighborhood Association and Momma Doris’ Transitional House, recently requested tickets to distribute to families of low income within their neighborhoods. These requests were denied.

The Free First Night Committee also requested that the First Night Columbia board meet with us when they begin making plans for 2008-2009 so that together we could explore avenues of funding to assure free First Nights for next year’s celebration and thereafter. This request for another meeting has not been answered.

In November, we addressed the City Council, asking that its contract with First Night Columbia stipulate that free tickets be advertised in their outreach efforts and that the board meet with members of our committee to produce an event that would assure free access for all.

The council did not include our proposals in the First Night contract but voted to give its usual $9,000 and generous in-kind city services for the festival. These in-kind city services include fire, police and emergency personnel, marketing, city employee time for planning, setup, cleanup, and the use of city buildings and buses. Boone County also gives taxpayer assistance.

The bottom line is that all who pay taxes are helping to fund this event, while many of those same taxpayers cannot afford to attend.

We have to ask ourselves, what kind of city do we want to be — a city of exclusion or a city of inclusion, where sharing and strengthening diversity matter to all of us?

This struggle for inclusion and fairness is not new. James Oppenheim expressed it in 1911: “Hearts starve as well as bodies: Give us bread, but give us roses ... Bread and Roses.” The “heart” as well as the body needs nourishment to produce a wholesome life.

When a public-supported event limits access, we weaken our community and starve the spirit of those who see others having fun they cannot have. Being “left out” risks the alienation of families, causing many to conclude that some people “count” more than others. This is not the Columbia we want.

The Ridgeway Neighborhood Association, GRO-Grass Roots Organizing, the Imani Center and Destiny of Hope, Columbia NAACP, Momma Doris’ Transitional House and The North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association have all agreed that they want to start our new year with a free First Night.

We invite all to join our efforts. We’re especially asking for the understanding and support of sponsors, elected officials and everyone involved with First Night. Help us ring in the 2008-2009 new year, and every new year thereafter, with a celebration that welcomes all families.

Members of the Free First Night Committee include Pat Kelley, Glenn Cobbins, Jackie Jefferson and Sid and Joan Sullivan.


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