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First Night rings in St. Petersburg

The popular New Year's Eve celebration fizzled in Tampa, but it flourishes in St. Petersburg and elsewhere.

St. Petersburg will once again host one of the biggest First Night alcohol-free celebrations in Florida on New Year's Eve with lighted lotus blossoms in Vinoy Basin, dancers and singers throughout downtown and two sets of fireworks _ at 9 p.m. and midnight.

Tampa's First Night, meanwhile, seems to have gone the way of New Year's Eves past.

It's history.

So what makes an arts event such as First Night succeed in one city and fail in another?

St. Petersburg, now with the longest-running First Night in Florida, has a series of committed sponsors; an attractive downtown waterfront that easily draws crowds; and a stable group of volunteers and paid workers who keep the event going year after year, organizers say.

"I think it's in large part due to the arts community and the city of St. Petersburg's ability to produce events on the waterfront," said Leslie Curran, chairwoman of the First Night board that runs the event. "They work."

Tampa's event, out of commission for two years, suffered from competition from other popular New Year's Eve events, sponsors who backed out at the last minute and turnover in its volunteers and supporters, said Barbara Rigall, former president of First Night Tampa.

Tampa's downtown venues for the event, many of them office lobbies, weren't conducive to many of the events.

"I think what happens is that when there's continual management change and leadership change, events tend to suffer and that has been the case in Tampa," said Zeren Earls, president of First Night International and one of the founders of the First Night event in 1976 at Boston. "In St. Petersburg, you have a strong management and board who make sure the funding keeps coming."

First Night began in Tampa in 1992 and in St. Petersburg in 1993. Dunedin's First Night _ in its fourth year and run by the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce _ has doubled in size since its inception, drawing about 8,000 people last year. It begins at 7 p.m. Sunday.

The event is now held in six cities across Florida, including Atlantic Beach, Delray Beach, Fort Walton Beach and Miami Beach.

Pensacola's First Night also shut down two years ago, as have more than a dozen cities across the country because of "post-millennium exhaustion," Earls said.

On the other hand, eight cities joined the First Night party this year, bringing the total number of cities holding the event to more than 200.

First Night in St. Petersburg attracted 5,000 paying customers and thousands more to events when it began in 1993. For the past two years, about 10,000 folks have paid to watch ballet dancers and bluegrass bands on New Year's Eve and another 10,000 to 20,000 have participated in events that don't require a charge.

The event _ this year's budget is about $160,000 _ is funded by a dozen sponsors who contribute about $55,000, as well as money left over from ticket sales the previous year. The city, county and state also chip in a combined $16,000 toward the event.

Pat Mason, First Night executive director, spends a year or more planning each party.

She comes up with ideas, meets with performers, finds places for events, consults with the fire marshal, fitting the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle.

A former English teacher, the 56-year-old spends her days trying to throw kinks in the traditional lineup of First Night events.

When she grew bored with sidewalk chalk art, she decided to move it into the street.

"That way all the cars can drive over it and see it," she said.

Instead of just gospel singing, she's offering folks the opportunity to sing with the Tampa Bay Mass Choir. This idea came to her while watching a Today show program about how one of the most popular attractions for Japanese tourists in New York was a gospel tour in Harlem.

Mason was at Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville in Orlando's Universal Studios when she got another idea. She had asked photographer Margaret Steward to spend a year documenting St. Petersburg at the turn of the millennium. Before her, slides of Buffett's concerts played on a large sail, so she decided to project Steward's images on a series of large sails in North Straub Park during First Night.

"The idea is to bring the arts into the parks and streets and take it out of the museums and galleries and make it more accessible," Mason said.

This year, look for giant croquet, raku firing, graffiti art, giant puppets and a musical petting zoo. Or stop by the birthday project at The Plaza, 111 2nd Ave. NE, where you'll find suspended 9-foot silk houses representing each month of the year.

"Everything we do, we've never done before," said Mason. "It's always interesting to see what happens."

First Night will start earlier than normal this year, at 4 p.m., and feature a 9 p.m. fireworks display for children. Other children's events, including face painting and marionette shows, will take place at McCrory's, 425 Central Ave.

Tickets, at $8 for adults, $5 for children older than 6, can be obtained in advance at Publix at Northeast Shopping Center, City Hall in Tyrone Square Mall, The Pier, Bayfront Center box office and TicketMaster. On the day of the event, tickets will be available at the major venues and the First Night information booth at Second Avenue North and Beach Drive.

(text accompanying map not provided to electronic library, please see microfilm.)