Tuesday, February 7, 2023

First Night Williamsburg Seeks Support from James City County

FirstNight2012Faced with a declining cash reserve, First Night Williamsburg is looking to revamp its activities and funding structure.

First Night’s vice president for development, Grover Lewis, described a proposal to revive the annual winter festival at the James City County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday night.

Lewis said the organization was considering several changes to the event’s structure, including extending it through the weekend, partnering with other winter activities and relocating several performances to New Town in an effort to boost interest in First Night.

“We’re really interested in expanding the base,” Lewis said. “[Moving some events to] New Town would let us do that.”

In his presentation to the supervisors, Lewis said the organization’s leaders were considering relocating four or five performances from downtown Williamsburg to locations around New Town, including Legacy Hall, several vacant storefronts in the development and on the other side of Monticello Avenue at New Town United Methodist Church.

Bus service would be extended in New Town to allow people access to the events in the development.

Lewis also said First Night was looking into extending performances through the weekend, making a number of the performances daytime activities, and cross-promoting with other seasonal events, including the Hair of the Dog 5K race.

Lewis said the event had an average draw of 5,000 people and an economic impact of about $400,000 in the last few years, and the proposed changes would allow First Night to increase both figures.

In exchange for moving the events to New Town, the organization requested $10,000 in funding from the county for support. Lewis said the festivals expenses had been outpacing its revenues for several years, causing its cash reserves to dwindle from about $46,000 in 2012 to $3,800 in 2014.

Lewis said the decline was due to several factors, including increased costs, difficulty in finding private sponsors and the organization’s unwillingness to raise the cost of admittance from $15.

The organization’s goal is to raise $50,000 to support this year’s event. To date, it has raised $26,500, including a one-time $15,000 contribution from the City of Williamsburg’s tourism contingency fund and $9,000 from the Williamsburg Area Arts Commission. Lewis said First Night also hoped to receive funding from the Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance.

Lewis compared First Night Williamsburg’s request to a similar request from Boston’s First Night organization, which received municipal funding to support its programming as a tourism draw.

Several supervisors voiced support for funding the event.

John McGlennon (Roberts) said moving the venues to New Town could benefit businesses in the development, but added he wanted to look into the potential effects before pledging any money.

Kevin Onizuk (Jamestown) and Michael Hipple (Powhatan) were also open to the idea, but did not offer immediate support.

“My concern is funding this and then in a year or two, we’re back in the same spot,” Onizuk said.

Mary Jones (Berkeley) was the most vocal opponent of the request.

“I’m not sure it’s a priority for the taxpayers,” Jones said.

First Night Williamsburg was founded in 1993 and stages performances for New Year’s Eve festivities in an alcohol-free environment.

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