Two hours before ringing in 2012, organizers of Columbia’s Famously Hot New Year knew it was a resounding success. They had expected 7,500 people at the inaugural event, but at 10 p.m., with hundreds of revelers stalled at entry gates, workers ran out of wristbands to distribute.
That’s what happens when more than 20,000 people show up to a free New Year’s Eve party. Atypically warm weather and the intrigue of a first-year event headlined by the musical icon George Clinton caused Main Street to swell with merrymakers who had to crane their necks to see the stage – and wait in achingly long lines for beverages.
A resounding success, yes. Without problems, no.
Several issues have been addressed. Mainly, the stage has been moved from Hampton and Main streets to Main and Gervais streets, where the South Carolina State House will serve as a backdrop for the event headlined by The Wallflowers, promising a better viewing experience for attendees.
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“It provides a lot more area, with Gervais having four lanes across it,” Charles Appleby, a festival co-chairman, said. “We’ve added additional entry gates to ensure there aren’t long lines like last year (and) more vendors to ensure more food and beverages for everybody.”
Famously Hot New Year, which attracted national attention, drew people from 23 states, according to Appleby. The estimated economic impact for hotels, restaurants and retailers was $1.5 million.
According to the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports, & Tourism’s data collected from the 11 hotels in the downtown area, occupancy for New Year’s Eve was 81 percent compared with 55 percent the year before, translating to almost 500 more rooms booked. The estimated economic impact was $370,000 – $120,000 more than the previous year.
“We wanted to create a multi-faceted event,” Mayor Steve Benjamin said. “One that would present Columbia as a destination city where people come and spend their recreational dollars, and giving people who live here something really great and cool to do.”
The final price tag for the first FHNY was $213,000. Taxpayer dollars paid for about a quarter, or $55,000, of that.
But the event fell $82,500 short of anticipated corporate contributions and needed more public money to keep from finishing in the red. In June, Columbia City Council voted to transfer $22,500 in hospitality tax revenue to balance the shortage.
The budget for the second FHNY has nearly doubled, to $400,000. Before Christmas, corporate donations were at $171,500, almost doubling the $92,500 received last year but still failing to hit the first-year goal of $175,000.
“If you can create an event that uses funds that are designated for creating tourist activities, cultural opportunities, and you can quantify the direct benefit it has to our local economy, there has to be multiple benefits,” Benjamin said on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, a nationally syndicated morning radio show broadcast locally on WLXC-FM Kiss 103.1. “At the same time, your citizens are thoroughly enjoying themselves.”
Dollars aside, FHNY accomplished something local festivals not named St. Pat’s in Five Points have had trouble doing: drawing a significant crowd. On a balmy August weekend, the inaugural Famously Hot Music Festival had lower than expected attendance, and with the announcement of the attempt next year to resurrect the 3 Rivers Music Festival, a three-day event of several years ago that suffered from poor weather and attendance, the debate about whether Columbia can sustain festivals has been revived.
“The role is to showcase what Columbia can be. These festivals and events, they’re not happening by mistake,” said Sam Johnson, a FHNY co-chair and a special assistant to the mayor. Johnson is also involved in the 3 Rivers festival planning. “People want to have a vibrant, first-class city. And part of that is having something to do. What this celebration can do is showcase that you can push the envelope.”
An argument, by a vocal minority with ties to the local music scene, has been made that local festivals have done everything but push the envelope in regard to booking contemporary names. The FHNY lineup also features Atlantic Starr, two DJ sets by Biz Markie and locals The Reggie Sullivan Band and Terence Young and The Finesse Band.
“The great part about the acts that we have this year is that there is something for everyone,” said Appleby, an attorney with the Collins & Lacy firm. “There’s going to be no single act that reaches everyone, so what this event is trying to do is provide acts that reach over multiple genres so we really have something where everyone can connect and have music that they enjoy.”
The lack of an en vogue national performer isn’t due to willful disregard, as Johnson confirmed reports that Alabama Shakes, a band that melds ’60s rock and soul and one of the hottest touring acts of 2012, was on the event’s shortlist.
“I mean, U2 was on the shortlist, too, but they were a little out of the price range,” Appleby said.
So was Alabama Shakes, which, according to a source with knowledge of booking rates, charged $40,000 for a sold-out September concert at Atlanta’s Masquerade Music Park, a venue that holds 4,000. A New Year’s Eve gig invariably drives up a band’s asking price. FHNY spent $105,000 on entertainment this year.
“As you reach the level where you’re financially stable, you want to begin to be able to have acts that (have) that wow factor,” Johnson said. “I believe we can begin to look at having folks like (Alabama Shakes) come to our New Year’s celebration as this event reaches its longevity.”
Competing with free
While free, FHNY does offer select ticket upgrades.
When asked if there was discussion of a general admission charge, say, $5-$10, to offset entertainment costs, Johnson said Mayor Benjamin wants FHNY to remain free.
“This is all part of a coordinated effort to reintroduce people to downtown Columbia,” Benjamin said. “Cultural activities make it an attractive place to people who are incredibly mobile right now. So you gotta make the case why Columbia, S.C., is a special place to live.”
The advent of a free party, though, has complicated planning for bars and clubs in the downtown entertainment districts on traditionally one of the busiest nights of the year.
“People feel like they can’t compete with it,” said Dave Britt, executive director of Rosewood Merchants Association and a veteran local promoter. “When you’ve got a free event, it’s hard to compete with free. It’s kind of scary to compete with free.”
For example, 5 Points Pub booked The Casual Kings, a funk-rock band that usually sells out the 225-seat venue in minutes, months in advance for 2011’s New Year’s Eve. About 70 people attended. Vance McNabb, who books 5 Points Pub, waited for FHNY to announce its second-year lineup.
“We were able to counter-book with an act that has mass local appeal and, more importantly, a great live show,” he said, referring to Weaving the Fate. “Our hope this year is that we found an act that people have a personal investment in and that will translate to a better turnout than last year.”
Johnson sees FHNY as an opportunity for local establishments, not a detraction.
“Folks will be able to go to locations in each hospitality district (Main Street, the Vista, Five Points, etc.) before or after the celebration and enjoy themselves,” he said. “We’re definitely marketing that.”
The attendance, at least for Year No. 1, suggests FHNY is something people want to keep on the entertainment calendar.
“If it’s anywhere close to where it was last year, it will be in good shape,” Benjamin said. “It was really a validation that it’s something the city wanted and needed.”
But anyone who has ever booked an outdoor event in this city knows Mother Nature can be irascible, even ruthless.
“If it rains, everyone (else) will be in luck,” said Britt, who has watched events succumb to undesirable weather. People “will have to go somewhere.”