Financial pressures affect Loudoun’s holiday plans and programs

December 12, 2011

As the holidays approach, the struggling economy continues to shape Loudoun County’s holiday plans and programs: Many residents were dismayed by the recent cancellation of a popular New Year’s Eve event, and local nonprofit groups are stepping up their annual efforts to rally community support and help stimulate the county’s economy.

The cancellation of Leesburg’s annual First Night celebration was announced in a somber statement Dec. 2. Officials and event planners said that it would be the first time in 25 years that the celebration, which has brought thousands of Loudoun families and visitors to downtown Leesburg to welcome the New Year, will not take place.

“We are certainly not happy about this decision, but we are convinced it is the right one under the circumstances,” Bob Sevila, First Night Leesburg posse chairman, said in a statement. Sevila is also a member of the board of directors of Bluemont, which produces a summer concert series and other cultural events.

A combination of factors resulted in the cancellation, Sevila said, including “persistent financial uncertainties.”

Milton Herd, Bluemont’s chairman of the board, said that the event was “a difficult project to pull off under the best of times” and that officials would “assess how to best continue this remarkable community project in the future.”

Since 1986, First Night Leesburg has been a well-attended community celebration featuring a variety of performing groups and activities at dozens of sites within walking distance of downtown Leesburg. Last year’s celebration offered 45 artist groups in 92 performances at 17 sites and was attended by more than 3,500 residents and visitors, Leesburg officials said.

The traditional “Midnight Grand Illumination Finale” brings together hundreds of people in the heart of the Colonial downtown area for a singalong by candlelight and a countdown as the courthouse bell rings in the new year.

The event is a nonprofit Bluemont community project involving more than 120 volunteers and roughly 750 hours of preparation, presentation and clean-up every year, Bluemont officials said.

“None of us are happy with the cancellation of 2011’s First Night Leesburg,” said Peter Dunning, president of the Bluemont board of directors. “We will be working over the next months on a transition plan to assure the future of Bluemont’s programs in the community.”

Beyond the disappointment of the First Night cancellation, the prevalence of financial stress is also driving Loudoun nonprofit organizations and charity programs to remind residents to support local vendors and donate to those who are struggling.

One popular holiday program — the Loudoun Alternative Gift Fair, organized by Loudoun Cares, a nonprofit organization that encourages collaboration and shared services among area charity groups — was relaunched in November as “Loudoun Gifts for Good,” said Andy Johnston, executive director of Loudoun Cares.

The program encourages residents to consider gifts to local charities in honor of their friends, family and colleagues as an alternative to traditional holiday shopping.

“Too often, holiday gift-giving is about buying for people who are already blessed with more than they need,” Johnston said. “Loudoun Gifts for Good offers an alternative for those of us who seek to give more meaningful gifts that help build community.”

The gift fair includes a number of Loudoun-based nonprofit groups, including Loudoun Interfaith Relief, Loudoun Therapeutic Riding, Good Shepherd Alliance and Friends of Loudoun Mental Health. Each participating charity suggests specific gift ideas, such as a $10 gift that would be used to provide cab fare for an elderly resident to get to a medical appointment, $25 to purchase bed linens for a shelter serving homeless families, or $50 to sponsor a one-hour therapeutic horseback-riding lesson for a recovering soldier.

Another local charity program — Project Elf, created in 2009 by Bethann Laign, a Girl Scout troop leader and project coordinator for Girl Scouts Unit 70-9 in Leesburg — has had its most successful year yet, with 70 families receiving donated holiday presents. The program helped 56 families last year and 40 in 2009, Laign said.

The presents, including clothing, home supplies, toys and basic necessities, will be given to families who receive case management services through the county’s mental health and substance abuse services, she said.

Each family was “adopted” by a local Girl Scout troop whose members bought items from the family’s wish list, Laign said. Volunteers will collect the gifts this week for distribution to the families the week of Dec. 19.

“With county resources stretched to the limit because of budget constraints, it is very gratifying to see that so many families in Loudoun County are willing to step into the void and provide the help to ensure that these needy families will have a joyous Christmas again this year,” Laign said.

For those who are hunting for gifts for family members and friends, Visit Loudoun, the county’s nonprofit tourism organization, recently launched a holiday campaign to urge consumers to shop within the county and to help draw visitors from the Washington area to Loudoun. The campaign includes a newly created Facebook page that highlights ideas for gifts from county vendors and the opportunity to register to win Loudoun products.

“Encouraging visitation and featuring unique local products not only creates awareness for local retailers and product sales, but stimulates revenue generation across the county,” said Patrick Kaler, president and chief executive of Visit Loudoun.

The Facebook page will promote seasonal gifts — such as a freshly cut fir tree from Loudoun Farms, which is the county office of rural economic development, and a Loudoun holiday lights limo tour — during the first 12 days of December on the Facebook page, with one winner each day.

The campaign continues through Dec. 26, Kaler said, but the organization hopes that the benefits of the outreach effort will continue to bolster the local economy beyond the holiday.

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