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New Year’s Eve party First Night St. Petersburg canceled this year

With a lull in sponsorship support and COVID-19 uncertainty, the family-friendly party to ring in the new year will pause.
At the 2021 First Night St. Petersburg celebration for New Year's Eve, there were fireworks at both 8 p.m. and midnight in the Vinoy Yacht Basin.
At the 2021 First Night St. Petersburg celebration for New Year's Eve, there were fireworks at both 8 p.m. and midnight in the Vinoy Yacht Basin. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]
Published Aug. 23|Updated Aug. 23

After 29 years, the family-friendly, alcohol-free New Year’s Eve celebration First Night St. Petersburg will not be taking place this year. Organizers hope that with some support from sponsors and an end to uncertainty cause by the pandemic, they can bring it back next year.

“COVID slowed us down and picking up momentum again with presenting sponsors has proven difficult,” board chairman Hal Freedman said in an announcement Tuesday. “COVID is also making the success of this year’s event unpredictable. Will people come out? Can we get enough volunteers? Will talent stay healthy?”

First Night grew into a huge celebration over the past three decades. There were music acts on multiple stages across downtown St. Petersburg, street performers, artists producing live displays, fireworks shows and interactive activities like drum circles, tree climbing and kids stomping on a block-long sheet of bubble wrap.

At the 2015 First Night celebration, people walked through the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) Resolution Labyrinth. Attendees were able to participate in several cultural activities, including art installations, watching dance and musical performances, arts and crafts and watching fireworks.
At the 2015 First Night celebration, people walked through the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) Resolution Labyrinth. Attendees were able to participate in several cultural activities, including art installations, watching dance and musical performances, arts and crafts and watching fireworks. [ EDELHEIT, EVE | Times (2015) ]

“Despite what many people believe, First Night is not a city event,” the organization’s announcement said. “Frankly, it’s amazing this little not-for-profit has carried on for 29 years with a handful of volunteer board members and one paid executive director.”

Meanwhile, the businesses along Beach Drive and hotels like the Vinoy charge a high price for their view of the fireworks and activities, Freedman said, but they haven’t backed it financially.

“They should be financially supporting this because they have benefited,” Freedman said. The city of St. Petersburg gives First Night $40,000 for the event, which he said costs around $180,000 to put on. But the city then charges them for police and other services, so they only net about $15,000.

The pandemic forced the event to go virtual in 2020. It sold buttons for “entry” into a virtual platform where attendees would find a salsa lesson, sing-alongs and an opportunity for everyone to take part in a resolution bonfire.

It returned in 2021. Last year’s program began at 4 p.m. and carried on for eight hours with music, fire jugglers, a peace flag project, kids play areas and fireworks shows at both 8 p.m. and midnight. Organizers asked for attendees to buy a button for entry, which ranged from $5-$15.

At the 2018 First Night celebration, Marquis McGill played a drum for the crowd during the Dundu Dole Urban African Ballet performance at the Museum of History in St. Petersburg. It was one of many cultural activities that night.
At the 2018 First Night celebration, Marquis McGill played a drum for the crowd during the Dundu Dole Urban African Ballet performance at the Museum of History in St. Petersburg. It was one of many cultural activities that night. [ "TAILYR IRVINE | TIMES" | Times (2018) ]

Since there was plenty to see without buying a button, organizers made a point to stress every year that the button sales were needed to support the activities. That’s where sponsorships became important, and First Night has struggled to get backing.

“For a better understanding of what’s involved, expenses for the event include talent, fireworks, city services, buttons, banners, map programs and logistics help. Revenue is solely from button sales and sponsorships,” Freedman said.

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Due to a lull in sponsorship support, the board decided to skip this year’s festivities and celebrate its 30th anniversary in December 2023.

At the 2015 First Night celebration, children and adults climbed a banyan tree at the Pathfinder Tree Climb and Rope Bracelets activity.
At the 2015 First Night celebration, children and adults climbed a banyan tree at the Pathfinder Tree Climb and Rope Bracelets activity. [ Times (2015) ]
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