January 3, 2010 - First Night Austin and New Year’s Eve Downtown
     What a difference 30 degrees and about $125,000 can make.  I'm sure it was the sudden cold front on New Year's Eve that kept the First Night Austin crowd to a minimum, but they unfortunately didn't miss much.
    The annual free downtown celebration of the arts had a rocky year, suffering from much-publicized conflicts within their board and management.  Not only did the organization's high profile executive director, Dave Sullivan, jump ship after only a few months, First Night founder Anne Elizabeth Wynn put a halt to fundraising efforts using her name - especially
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since she was dismissed from the board in 2006.  The economic downturn did not help matters either, as long-time sponsors cut back drastically or did not participate at all.
    This year's First Night plans started with a budget of $350,000 - on par with last year - but pared back plans to fit the $225,000 they actually raised.  The obvious difference - aside from the lack of people - was the absence of visual arts installations, the hallmark of previous First Night celebrations (and no, an over-sized Hibatchi with a butane flame is not "visual art").
   We caught some of the family-oriented festivities during the day around Auditorium Shores, and a fair number of folks made their way downtown prior to the late-afternoon cold snap.  We regrouped, bundled up, and braved the cold with a couple of thousand other folks to catch the Grand Procession, which launched at 6 p.m. from Congress and 5th Street.   But by 6:30 p.m., the whole parade had completed the route - a far cry from last year's procession, which
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lasted two hours and featured hundreds of performers and colorful, people-powered floats.
  We popped into the Long Center's celebration, the Long First Night, which sported a more ample crowd.  We sampled the exquisite buffet by Sterling Affairs, the in-house caterer for the Long Center headed by Austin food icon Larry Kille.  The crab cakes were divine, and the short rib was some of the most flavorful and fork-tender beef that I've enjoyed in months.  
  After an hour of mingling and snacking, we ventured back out across Congress Avenue.  It was about 8 p.m., and Cesar Chavez - the heart of First Night - was deserted, except for a conclave of APD bike patrol officers and two EMS technicians on 4-wheelers.  Even the
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vendors were throwing in the towel and packing up.
   We regrouped again, and dropped by Parkside's big New Year's party on Sixth Street.  The popular downtown restaurant was hopping with the pretty people, all noshing on chef Shawn Cirkiel's culinary creations.  We're suckers for Parkside's seafood, so we happily sampled the hors d'oeurves while grooving to popular DJs Mahealani and Grey (not sure which DJ was which - my bad).  Perched on the railing of the outdoor patio, we had a commanding view of the throngs assembling along Sixth Street - a giddy horde fueled by alcohol and enthusiasm.
   For the witching hour, we had been invited to Oilcan Harry's by owner Larry Davis.  So we rang in 2010 with a big group of friends and a wonderful bottle of champagne, courtesy of the club.    As the First Night fireworks filled the sky, we resolved that 2010 would be a better year.