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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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First Night planners crossing fingers for large turnout to keep Spokane event going

By Abby Lynes The Spokesman-Review

Making First Night in Spokane warmer, more fun and festive for all ages isn’t an option: It’s a must.

If the New Year’s Eve event doesn’t attract close to 10,000 people downtown, said executive director Nanette Miller, this year’s First Night could be its last night.

“The goal is to make this event amazing,” Miller said. “Otherwise, it cannot sustain itself, how it’s been.”

One change is bringing First Night in from the cold and making it an indoor event.

First Night costs about $200,000 to put on, with event planners needing 6,000 attendees to break even. Miller has been the event’s only paid employee for two years, and though there’s a committee of volunteers, she said her job is simply too big for one person.

First Night was greeted with relative success in its inaugural year in Spokane in 2001 by the Arts Committee of the Chamber of Commerce. About 15,000 people attended.

The idea originated in Boston in 1975, and First Night celebrations have since done well in cities across the United States. In First Night Spokane’s most successful year, a whopping 35,000 downtown revelers rang in the new year.

But last year about 6,000 people came downtown for the event. That’s not enough, Miller said. Too many free buttons were given out, and event organizers had to add costly extra security at the last minute.

Spokane is not alone. Cities around the country are struggling to keep First Night alive. Some have absorbed First Night into a city-planned event. Others have stopped the event amid lackluster attendance.

Miller’s determined not to let that happen in Spokane.

“Each year, we need new things,” she said. “The arts are not predictable, and neither should we be.”

Miller has been in the industry for more than 20 years, and she said her background in planning large events brings a new dynamic to what First Friday has done in the past.

She wants to rebrand the event, maintaining its status as a family-friendly place while also incorporating more of the arts and adult-centered activities.

This year’s “Be a Hero” Renaissance-themed event will feature stroller-free zones, and alcoholic drinks will continue to be offered for adults.

The Spokane Convention Center’s gallery will display work from a number of local artists, there will be theater events, musicians playing at various locations and even a screening of the top three films from a festival held in early December.

First Night also is unusual for its focus on safe events for teens.

There will be a teen laser light dance party, and 60 high school students from around the area will have their metal and woodshop art pieces on display at Ironclad Gallery.

Cheney High School metalshop teacher Allen Skoog said he’s proud of his students, who will submit three pieces to the show, and he’s excited to see where welding takes his students.

“The skills they learn could transfer into pretty high-wage careers,” he said.

Companies from around the region will be scouting the art showing, Miller said.

Transportation has been an issue for some First Night-goers in the past. One Cheney resident, Tim Cheidt, went with his family 12 years ago but said he hasn’t been back because of the long drive, parking costs and memories of being cold.

While there won’t be a shuttle going to Cheney, event attendees can park in the WSU Spokane parking lot for free and take a shuttle to First Night events.

And the cold should be less of a problem. All three hotels involved are going to be connected, and most activities will be indoors. For those willing to brave the cold, though, Delta Dental has offered to cover the cost of ice skate rentals for the Riverfront Park skating ribbon.

Though there’s a lot riding on this year’s attendance, Miller is optimistic, already planning for next year’s event, with the theme “Art Revolution,” which she will start work on Jan. 3.

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