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In Austin, a smaller but still fun New Year's Eve party

Despite cutbacks, First Night attendees say they still enjoy downtown celebration.

Isadora Vail
It was out with the old and in with the new at the House of Resolution on Auditorium Shores. In a 'house' of recycled window and door panes, Andrea Hyland gathers resolutions, such as the one below, into a thread that was to be carried aloft by balloons at midnight.

Strong winds and raindrops Thursday evening didn't keep thousands of people from attending a scaled-back version of First Night Austin, the city's free annual New Year's Eve celebration.

Among them were Jeff Montgomery and his family, seen peering over the South First Street bridge to watch his handmade Mad Hatter hat, swept off his head by the gusts, float away in Lady Bird Lake.

"I miss the chalk artists they used to have out here," Montgomery said. "I figured we'd be here a lot longer, but after an hour and a half, I think we've seen everything and are ready to go."

Despite cutting about $125,000 of the budgeted $350,000 for First Night Austin activities, the city still had musicians, fireworks, a parade, a boat light parade and dozens of shows by local performers. Rumors had spread earlier this year that the city might cancel the festivities altogether.

The grand procession down Congress Avenue at 6 p.m. had bands, local performers and a Capital Metro bus painted by a high school student, as well as a scooter painted by artist Sheri Mays and signed by filmmaker Richard Linklater. The scooter was to be raffled off as midnight neared.

This is First Night's fifth year. In the past, city leaders have typically estimated attendance at about 100,000 people.

Problems with paying for First Night began earlier this year when the organization's director, and sole full-time staffer, quit abruptly after serving for less than a year.

After Dave Sullivan's departure, arts supporter and First Night founder Anne Elizabeth Wynn sent a letter to the event's corporate and foundation sponsors advising them "not to put your philanthropic resources into this effort even after this year unless (there is) a radical reconstruction of the organization."

Wynn initiated the event in 2004 and was the first board president. She said she was voted off the board in 2006 but continues to support the organization and raise money.

First Night was not the only festival in 2009 to be scaled back by the city. Also trimmed was the annual Trail of Lights — this year renamed the Zilker Tree Holiday Festival — which had about half as many light displays as in the past.

Still, thousands attended both events.

Jason Montgomery, who attended First Night with his adult son, Jeff, said they have attended the New Year's Eve festival every year. He said the best and biggest year was 2005.

"I think the whole thing has gotten smaller and smaller every year," said Jason Montgomery. "This is definitely the smallest, but it's still nice to come out and see what they do different.

"I guess that's the good thing about the festival — every year it is different."

ivail@statesman.com; 445-3763