Organizers hope to revive Leesburg’s First Night celebration

Nearly three years after a popular New Year’s Eve celebration was first canceled because of financial woes, the event’s organizers are planning a strategy to revive First Night Leesburg this year.

The Bluemont Concert Series announced that it would host a community meeting at Rust Library in Leesburg on Thursday to discuss restoring the annual First Night celebration, which for 25 years brought thousands of Loudoun County residents and visitors to Leesburg’s historic downtown to ring in the new year.

The alcohol-free, family- friendly event traditionally ended with a “Midnight Grand Illumination Finale,” during which crowds gathered in the heart of Leesburg’s downtown for a candlelight sing-along and a countdown to the courthouse bell ringing in the new year.

The celebration was first canceled in December 2011, after organizers announced that there simply wasn’t sufficient funding for the event, which often included nearly 100 performances and activities at dozens of sites within walking distance of downtown Leesburg.

“It’s really sorely missed in the community,” said Lily Dunning, executive director of the Bluemont Concert Series, which has organized the event previously. “There’s nothing like it on New Year’s Eve. Every time Bluemont does a public event, people ask about it: ‘When is First Night Leesburg coming back? What happened to First Night?’ ”

What happened was an unpredictable climate, Dunning said, referring to both the weather and the economy.

“It’s a very fragile event in terms of the weather,” Dunning said. “You can’t necessarily rely on admissions, because if it snows or storms, then we might have a very small number of people attending.”

Faced with a continuing funding deficit, the First Night celebration was also canceled in 2012 and last year.

The event had been previously funded, in part, by the county and the Town of Leesburg, Dunning said. But that money disappeared as local officials struggled with the aftermath of a difficult recession.

“The past few years have been really tough for everyone, and especially for local government budgets,” she said.

The event requires a substantial effort to pull off, Dunning added. A committee of 20 to 30 people is responsible for coordinating it, including lining up dozens of performers and performance sites. An additional 100 to 150 volunteers work the event itself. The celebration has a price tag that generally ranges from $25,000 to $35,000, she said.

When the weather cooperates — as it did in 2010 — the event has drawn as many as about 4,000, Dunning said.

“But in years prior to that, if the weather was bad, that number can be cut in half or even a third,” she said.

This year, still facing a lack of public funds, Dunning said that Bluemont hopes to find private sponsors that could help return the event to the streets of Leesburg on New Year’s Eve. The organization also hopes that members of the community who might like to volunteer or help plan the event will attend Thursday’s meeting.

Over the coming months, Bluemont will focus on developing a stronger funding strategy, she said.

“We’re working on building a group of people who would want to be involved, and working with them to reach out to folks in the private sector who might be interested in seeing that this community event continues,” she said. “We’re looking for the folks who would really like to see First Night restored.”

The meeting will be at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Rust Library meeting room, 380 Old Waterford Rd. NW, Leesburg. To reserve a spot or to join the volunteer effort, contact Lily Dunning at 540-955-8186 or lily@bluemont.org.

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Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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