Amid the fireworks and celebrations leading up to New Year’s Eve, Leesburg’s First Night will not be a part of it. The family-oriented collaboration of bands, performers and community members that drew thousands from across the region for 25-consecutive years will once again be silent.
“It’s a shame,” said Kristen Umstattd, the Leesburg district representative on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. Umstattd, who previously spent 14 years as the town’s mayor, used to bring her daughter to First Night.
She was far from alone.
At its peak, First Night drew 4,000 people. Spread across venues in historic downtown Leesburg, First Night arranged nearly two dozen entertainers, musicians, puppeteers, magicians and the like. Patrons walked among the venues to hear a song, see a show and enjoy ushering in the New Year together with a “grand illumination” candle passing outside the county courthouse at midnight. People were attracted from across county and state lines to an alcohol-free, family-friendly event that provided a bevy of entertainment options in a comparatively safe and hassle-free environment away from more bustling events closer to D.C.
But too often it couldn’t reach those heights.
Attendees, as well as Bluemont Concert Series — the non-profit event organizer that put on First Night — always had to worry about the late December weather. While the organization’s eponymous annual concerts series at the County Courthouse during the summer is still an ongoing tradition, temperatures below freezing and threats of precipitation invariably deterred attendance for Bluemont’s marquee winter event. Poor weather in 2008 and 2009 scared away attendees in droves, and helped facilitate First Night’s end.
First Night also had to deal with the logistics of hosting an event geared towards children at a time of night many of them couldn’t stay awake for. Bluemont tried different approaches over the years to instead target teenagers and other groups with things like high school band rock concerts, but that couldn’t prove enough to keep it going.
The biggest deterrent was the cost itself. Arranging for entertainers, facility use and other logistics could cost as much as $30,000 for the one-night event. Even with an admission fee and a small army of volunteers, the costs were too much. Bluemont turned to the Town for help, but after one year subsidizing it, the Town council, facing its own financial hardship exasperated by the Great Recession, decided to go in a different direction.
In December Leesburg already hosts a tree lighting and a Christmas parade, and Umstattd said staff was exhausted from those events alone. Plus, even for a Town with an annual budget around $50 million, $30,000 for an event the Town wasn’t sure it could handle or have people attend was not something to take lightly.
“Demographics of the town changed, and people were looking for other things to do,” Umstattd said.
Good weather helped draw nearly 4,000 to First Night 2010, but still with the stigma of inconsistent attendance and an exorbitant price tag, it was cancelled for 2011.
Bluemont made several overtures to revive it in the years since. In 2014, the group held meetings in Leesburg to gauge interest in a revival, but nothing materialized afterwards. Last year organizers met with Leesburg town manager Kaj Dentler, but again nothing concrete emerged.
First Night still has the same problems it faced in 2010. New Year’s Eve weather is still unpredictable if not inhospitable, the costs are still high and the logistics are still difficult to arrange a sprawling event that appeals to all age groups from evening through midnight.
In the years since, there’s been a proliferation of alternatives for New Year’s eve in First Night’s absence. Along with independent entities putting on events at midnight, there is a growing number of “Noon Year’s Eve” events for children at kid-friendly business and Loudoun library recreation rooms across the county.
Still, six years after the initial cancellation, Bluemont is still hopeful First Night can come back to Leesburg.
In Warrenton, Bluemont is hosting a similar, albeit smaller-scale, First Night. Kelly Burk, a long-time advocate for the Town’s art and entertainment scene, will take over as Leesburg Mayor in the new year and the Bluemont hopes she may be more amenable to subsidizing First Night. Another solution could be a corporate sponsor, though nothing is lined up yet, said Bluemont Executive Director Lily Dunning.
Regardless, it’s too late for First Night 2016. Bluemont, and others in the Town, are still hopeful a decades-long tradition can return, maybe as soon as December 2017.
“I still hear from people in the community pretty consistently who want to see it come back,” Dunning said. “It’s something we would love to see happen, it’s something I think the town would love to see happen.”