Tacoma’s First Night celebration will be missed, but backup plan sounds enticing

Fire performers entertain the crowd prior to the countdown to the New Year at Tacoma’s First Night celebration on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015.
Fire performers entertain the crowd prior to the countdown to the New Year at Tacoma’s First Night celebration on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015. dperine@thenewstribune.com

We’ll go ahead and say it so you don’t have to: 2018 was kind of a bummer year.

Sure, the Winter Olympics were nice, as was the royal wedding, and the midterm elections gave the country a slight course correction from two years of free fall offered up by the Trump Administration.

But for many folks in the 253, in realms political, professional and personal, this year was a rough one.

The holidays will provide respite, of course, but some recent sad news went over like a cigar butt in the punchbowl.

First Night, Tacoma’s annual New Year’s Eve celebration, is taking a year off. Organizers of the event, the Theater District Associates, point to a lack of loot; there just wasn’t enough of it to pay artists and technical staff.

We get that a canceled party, albeit one attended by 20,000 last year, ranks far down a list of concerns that includes dying whales and record wildfires.

The First Night hiatus can’t compete with global humanitarian crises or a local homelessness problem so deep-rooted, the Tacoma City Council Tuesday extended its public emergency declaration until the end of 2019.

But the First Night announcement before Thanksgiving didn’t do 2018 any favors.

A smaller backup event being put together by the city could lift our collective spirits.

For 25 years, First Night has been one place in this polarized world where we can gather as a community: Vegans, Presbyterians, Dallas Cowboy fans, everyone. There is no judgment, only merriment.

But the alcohol-free, family-friendly festival doesn’t come cheap; to properly ring in the Year of the Pig required a $130,000 budget. And this year isn’t the first time First Night has gone dark because organizers didn’t bring home enough bacon to pay for it.

In 2005 and 2006, the budget couldn’t recover from a $50,000 debt leftover from 2004. Those cancellations were disappointing, but not surprising, as the economic weather map pointed toward recession.

That’s not the case today. The economy is robust, as our president often reminds us; plus, a 2017 tax code change allows corporations and wealthy business owners to keep more of their money.

Still, sponsorships and grants were down this year by a disappointing 50 percent.

Who backed out and why is information we aren’t privy to, but First Night board member and downtown business owner Steph Farber says charitable giving is “always changing.”

Farber, who’s participated in First Night since its inception, is as heartbroken as anyone.

“This was not an easy decision,” said the owner of LeRoy Jewelers, adding that the board decided to call off the event rather than raise admission prices.

First Night has always been free for kids under age 10, and the $15 admission button kept it affordable for most families.

It’s a shame the community won’t get to soak up the restored classic ambiance of the Pantages Theater, which reopened last month after a $24.5 million remodel.

The Pantages, which also celebrated 100 years in 2018, is one of several venues in the Broadway corridor where singers, musicians and performance artists usually blow audiences away with their First Night panache.

But at this point, it’s best to follow Farber’s lead and focus on next year’s party, one he says “people from Vancouver to Vancouver” will want to attend. Farber pledges that First Night 2019 will be back better than ever.

There’s reason for optimism after the recent passage of Proposition 1, better known as “Tacoma Creates.” The fact that voters overwhelmingly approved a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase to strengthen neighborhood art and culture demonstrates how much this community values those assets.

The $130,000 question is whether big donors will match that generosity by underwriting First Night.

For those of you with no plans for New Year’s Eve, stay tuned: The city is scrambling to put together a smaller event with free entertainment and a countdown in and around Tollefson Plaza.

We say go, even if many of the usual bells and whistles are absent. Cradle hot cocoa with mitten hands, smile at your neighbor and look forward to 2019.

Remember, too, it’s not how you start but how you finish, and years are no exception.

Here’s hoping Dec. 31, 2018 will be the last time that First Night doesn’t happen.