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Economy puts damper on New Year’s Eve celebrations

31 December 2008 25 Comments

Hundreds of thousands of revelers packed a frigid Times Square for the descent of the famous Waterford crystal ball on Wednesday, eager to say goodbye to 2008 and hoping to put the nation’s economic troubles in the past.

The wind chill made it feel like 1 degree in the area, but that didn’t deter the throngs who were cloaked in fur hats and sleeping bags.

“We’re worried about the economy but hoping for the best,” said Lisa Mills, of Danville, Ohio.

Mills and her husband, Ken, took her 17-year-old daughter, Kara, to Times Square for her birthday.

“We decided, we haven’t taken a family vacation yet, and this was a great time to do it,” she said. “We’re staying positive.”

Many other New Year’s Eve traditions around the country were in place, but some festivities fell victim to hard times, and those that remained felt somewhat subdued. The nation’s economic troubles made many people less interested in giving 2008 an expensive send-off.

Public celebrations were canceled in communities from Louisville, Ky., to Reno, Nev., and promoters in Miami Beach, Fla., reported slower ticket sales than expected for celebrity-studded parties that they say would have sold out in past years.

Tourism officials in Las Vegas expected more tourists in Sin City to celebrate New Year’s Eve than last year, despite economic worries that have meant fewer visitors in 2008, Mayor Oscar Goodman said Wednesday night. Las Vegas casinos were putting on a midnight fireworks display and daredevil acts, including a 200-foot jump over the refurbished volcano at The Mirage hotel-casino by Robbie Knievel, son of the late Evel Knievel.

A spokesman for the biggest player on the Las Vegas Strip, MGM Mirage Inc., said more than 90 percent of rooms were filled, albeit at historically low prices reflective of a down year for tourism and gambling.

Around the world, people paused for a deep breath and a sip of … perhaps something cheaper than champagne.

“We’re not going to celebrate in a big way. We’re being careful,” said architect Moussa Siham, 24, as shoppers in the affluent area west of Paris were scaling back purchases for the traditional New Year’s Eve feast.

Sydney, Australia, was the world’s first major city to ring in 2009, showering its shimmering harbor with a kaleidoscope of light that drew cheers from more than a million people.

At the Vatican, in the splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Benedict XVI called for “soberness and solidarity” in 2009. During a year’s end vespers service Wednesday evening, the pope said these times are “marked by uncertainty and worry for the future” but urged people not to be afraid and to help each other.

Former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Clinton were scheduled to help Mayor Michael Bloomberg lower the ball atop 1 Times Square for the 60-second countdown to midnight.

Pauleene Romero, from Anchorage, Alaska, came to the celebration by herself on a whim.

“I had a bad year,” she said, not wanting to elaborate. “I just wanted to do this for myself, as a way to start off a new year.”

Others waiting in the windy winter cold were optimistic about 2009. Sam Tenorio and his family drove to New York from Orlando, Fla., so his teenage daughter Brianna could see the Jonas Brothers perform live in Times Square.

“The economy is what it is. It’s going to turn around. You just have to be positive,” Tenorio said. “That’s what we’re doing, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. I think that’s why most people are here tonight: optimism.”

In Milwaukee, Cherie Klaus, a retail manager, was adamant about maintaining her New Year’s Eve tradition. Every year her parents fly to Wisconsin from the Philadelphia area, and her family reunites at different relatives’ homes, wrapping up with the big event in Klaus’s home.

“I probably didn’t spend as much money on Christmas presents, maybe 25 percent less,” said Klaus, 53, “but we never cut back on family.”

Others weren’t so lucky. Windy weather and rough harbor waters caused Baltimore officials to postpone a New Year’s Eve fireworks celebration. In Reno, officials canceled their fireworks show for the first time since 2000.

“With the downturn in the economy, with people getting laid off and with the tightening of budgets all over town, we just didn’t think it was right to spend $20,000 or $30,000 on something that goes up in smoke,” Mayor Bob Cashell said.

Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson expected to save $33,000 by canceling a New Year’s Eve party he traditionally throws, a spokeswoman said. Hundreds of revelers were still expected to watch the Times Square countdown on a big screen at a separate, free event in the city’s downtown business district.

Elkhart, Ind., planned a party at its outdoor skating rink, with volunteers leading some games, instead of a $5,000 event with fireworks. The city hadn’t gotten any complaints about the scaled-back celebration, said Arvis Dawson, executive assistant to the mayor.

“I think most people understand,” he said.

The downturn has been a boon for some inexpensive New Year’s Eve events.

Advance ticket sales for the U.S. Bank New Year’s Eve bash in Madison, Wis., were up 20 percent from a year ago, spokeswoman Lisa Clark said. A $10 family pass buys access to a family-oriented celebration involving music, magicians, hay rides and fireworks.

“What can you do for $10 anymore?” Clark asked, adding, “For someone trying to pinch pennies and yet still have a good time, this is a good bargain.”

Philadelphia planned to celebrate New Year’s Day with its more than century-old Mummers Parade, though it had fallen into jeopardy when city officials withdrew about $400,000 in support.

After weeks of limbo, the Mummers Association successfully raised enough private donations to continue the pageant filled with flamboyantly dressed performers, sometimes described as the city’s Mardi Gras.

Rich Porco, a Mummer for 51 years, said the uncertainty made this “one of the worst years I’ve ever been involved with.”

Instead of preparing for the festivities, “you found yourself thinking more about, ‘Is there going to be a parade?’” Porco said. “It was hard.”

In Pasadena, Calif., hundreds of thousands of spectators were expected for the Rose Parade. Organizers said any economic hit they might have suffered was lessened because commitments to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on floats have been in place for at least a year.

“We may or may not feel the effects of the economy this year, but more likely next year,” Tournament of Roses Chief Operating Officer Bill Flinn said. “We do feel one of our jobs is to bring optimism at a time when things are not so good for so many people.”

And plenty of Americans seemed ready to celebrate — even the National Association of Realtors, despite a flood of foreclosures and a credit crunch that has made mortgages hard to get. The group has a float in the parade for the first time.



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