Organization's leaders say donations that keep event going have lagged because of the economy.

For the first time in 15 years, Delaware's capital city will not host its popular First Night Dover New Year's Eve celebration at the end of 2011, the event's board of directors announced last week.

The family-oriented, alcohol-free event has traditionally featured music, children's activities and other attractions at sites throughout downtown Dover, culminating with a fireworks display and midnight ball-drop on Legislative Mall.

The large majority of the money necessary to stage First Night Dover has come from donations and grants, but funding has suffered in recent years because of the economic recession, the board said in a press release Feb. 18.

Lynn Appel, president of the event’s board, said the organization would rather cancel First Night than put on a sub-par celebration.

“First Night has operated from a very fiscally responsible position since its inception and we do not want to find ourselves not in that position, nor do we want to start to nickel-and-diming the event, that’s what’s happened in other communities,” she said. “We don’t want to put on a half baked event. Do you have an art exhibit and have only half of the walls filled with paintings?”

Former event director Shelly Cecchett said the 2009 celebration cost $100,000 to stage, most of which covered entertainment acts.

“Last year we trimmed the budget to around $70,000 because we were trying to cut every way we could,” she said. “This year, we knew there were no more places to cut. We would really have to be getting rid of additional entertainment.”

In addition to scaled-back donations from sponsors and local businesses, First Night has also received fewer public dollars in recent years.

For the 2010 event, the organization received $6,300 from the General Assembly’s annual Grant-in-Aid bill. Two years earlier, the legislature gave $12,400 in grant funds to the event.

Cecchett also said First Night ticket sales suffered because of bad weather two of the last three years.

“That weather really hurt us the year before last,” she said. “It was really the perfect storm; the economy, the weather and both of those things affected our corporate sponsors.”

Even though this year’s event is unlikely to happen, the board does not plan to dissolve and will remain in place should the event be resurrected in future years. Board member Sharrie May will be responsible for maintaining continuity within the organization.

Appel said the organizers will see how things look next year.

“The plan is at this point just to keep the board intact and we will reevaluate next year. And whatever decision is made that year, if it’s to not have an event, we’ll meet in another year and reevaluate. That’s the plan for the short term,” she said.

In the community, Appel said those she’s spoken to are disappointed, but they understand the challenges the event’s organizers are facing.

Dover Mayor Carleton E. Carey Sr. said he knows plenty of people who will miss First Night.

“It’s sad that it’s not going to be able to happen,” he said. “It’s one of our bigger events that we have each year and it’s a great family event and the children have always had a great time. I commend the committee for all they do and for all they’ve done.”