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New Year's Eve festivities scaled back

First Night Austin will go on despite management troubles and cuts in funding.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

First Night Austin leaders recently unveiled two vehicles they hoped will signal the way for the family-friendly New Year's Eve downtown arts celebration.

One was a Capital Metro bus cleverly painted by high school students that will lead the event's grand procession down Congress Avenue to Auditorium Shores on New Year's Eve.

The other was a scooter painted by artist Sheri Mays and signed by filmmaker Richard Linklater that was up for raffle, a fundraiser for the nonprofit organization that produces the free event.

"I'm a big believer in the word 'yes,'" said Albert Cantara, president of the First Night Austin board.

And so, yes, First Night Austin will go on, although earlier this year it was rumored to be on the verge of cancellation and the budget is about one-third less than what it was last year.

First Night Austin isn't the only holiday event that's been scaled back. The annual Trail of Lights in Zilker Park was replaced with a smaller version called the Zilker Tree Holiday Festival after the city failed to find a private vendor to run the 1.2-mile loop of light displays.

An estimated 100,000 people have attended First Night Austin each year since it began in 2005. The event includes performances, children's arts activities, site-specific installations and a parade down Congress Avenue.

The concept of First Night was created by a group of artists in Boston in 1975 who were looking for an alternative to the typical alcohol-fueled New Year's revelry. First Night events are now held in cities around the world.

The Austin organization started planning this year's event with a projected budget of about $350,000, Cantara said, about the same as last year. However, the current event has a budget of about $225,000, Cantara said.

Fundraising stalled earlier this year. And in July, the organization's executive director, Dave Sullivan, quit abruptly after less than a year on the job. The resignation was mutually agreed upon by Sullivan and the board, Cantara said. But the departure left the group without any full-time paid administrative staffers and with incomplete initiatives.

Then, shortly after Sullivan's departure, arts supporter and First Night Austin 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 founded the event in 2004, acting as the first board president. She said she was voted off the board in 2006 but continued to support the organization and raise money.

Wynn said she sent the letter because "my good word has been inextricably associated with (First Night Austin) and that those who had taken charge of this organization and who demonstrated repeated incompetence might reach out to donors without my knowledge."

Wynn said she was worried that with a reduced budget, the scope of First Night Austin "had devolved to a minor performance moment with none of the investment in the visual and conceptual artist installations."

Cantara said he was familiar with Wynn's letter but declined to comment on it.

This year's event does have fewer large, site-specific art installations than in years past and only one fireworks display. In previous years, there were two fireworks displays.

Also new this year, the usually all-free event includes a ticketed gala at the Long Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets to the "Long First Night" range from $20 to $110. A two-mile run, co-sponsored by RunTex, has also been added to the lineup and requires a registration fee of $15 to $25.

H-E-B, the lead corporate sponsor, contributed $50,000. Last year, the company gave $100,000. Leslie Lockett,

H-E-B's spokeswoman, said the events surrounding the First Night organization had caused the company "to ask some questions."

"It's been a challenging year for everyone, especially for the nonprofit community," she said. "We needed to see that (the event) would be a success. And they were able to give us the confidence to go forward with our sponsorship, especially in view of the city's support of the event."

The City of Austin gave First Night Austin $50,000 this year, part of a five-year agreement the city entered into last year. The money came from the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office and was allocated by the city manager, said Patricia Fraga, a city spokeswoman.

Other sponsors include the Seton Family of Hospitals, which donated $15,000, and the Downtown Austin Alliance, which contributed $15,000.

Cantara said he expects the event to continue.

"People love this event and want it to keep happening, and other community groups want to be involved," he said. "People know it's a good thing for our community."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699