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Published: Friday, 4/27/2001

First Night might be thrown out of SeaGate Centre

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The organization that produces First Night may lose the use of SeaGate Centre for its upcoming New Year's Eve celebration unless it pays the convention center $4,000 by Monday.

If it doesn't come up with the money by then - an extension of its due date - the space that has been First Night's linchpin will be rented to other groups, said James Donnelly, president of the convention center.

“We don't want to put anybody out in the cold,” Mr. Donnelly said. “But we'd be forced to sell the space.”

The Performing Arts Council of Toledo, the nonprofit agency that has run First Night since 1993, owes $2,500 for last year's use of SeaGate Centre and a $1,500 deposit for this year's event, he said. The performing arts council, a group formed to promote local arts and artists, is in financial trouble and estimates its debt at $103,300. It has paid the 1,000 musicians, actors, and artists who performed Dec. 31 only a third of what they were contracted for, and other vendors are unpaid.

Sister Sheila Shea, the performing arts council's executive director, said she expects to come up with at least $2,000. “We're going to scramble to try and get it, that's for sure,” she said.

Chuck Vicinus, president of the performing arts council's board, said he hopes to tap into some of the $15,000 the city recently awarded First Night. “We're trying to speed up the process,” he said. Other than that, the performing arts council has scant cash. “We've got a little money in the bank, but it's a question of what's down the road for us.”

The prospect of available space at the convention center is a bitter pill for Mike Sapara, general manager of the Radisson Hotel. He missed out on booking a 700-person Detroit group that would have nearly filled the Radisson Dec. 30-31 if it could have used one of SeaGate Centre's three halls for a private party.

“It bothers me a lot,” said Mr. Sapara, adding that the Radisson has been “wining and dining” the group for years.

The group, Port-o-Call, has long wanted to rent 350 of the Radisson's 400 rooms and adjoining space in SeaGate Centre for its sit-down dinner and New Year's Eve party, said Rowena Goolsby, Port-o-Call treasurer and event planner. It's an easy distance from Detroit, she said.

“We've been begging them and begging them,” said Ms. Goolsby, who said she's brought groups of 100 to the riverfront Rib-Off in the summer. “We had everybody looking forward to a trip.”

At the request of the Radisson's sales manager, she held off booking a hotel until mid-February. But when she learned that the cost of her group' s hotel and banquet package would increase by about $5,000 to pay for 700 First Night tickets, Ms. Goolsby dropped Toledo and booked the Hyatt Regency in Dearborn, Mich.

“The [Radisson] package came up too expensive,” said Ms. Goolsby.

Comprised of friends and relatives between the ages of 35 and 75, the group has been gathering on New Year's Eve for 15 years. They also take a cruise every other year. The stumbling block was First Night's use of all three halls in SeaGate Centre, which left a big group, such as Port-o-Call, without adjoining space for a party. The Radisson's ballrooms are not large enough to accommodate groups of that size. The hotel connects to the SeaGate Centre.

Mr. Donnelly knew of First Night's financial troubles and that attendance at the alcohol-free event last year had dropped significantly. He also knew about the Radisson's efforts to land the lucrative Port-o-Call group.

In February, Mr. Donnelly met with Mr. Vicinus, and the performing arts council's former interim director, Elizabeth Emmert. He suggested that the performing arts council release one of the halls in exchange for the Port-o-Call group purchasing 700 First Night tickets. First Night tickets are required to enter SeaGate Center on New Year's Eve, he said.

Mr. Vicinus was thrilled with the idea of selling 700 First Night tickets at $7 apiece to Port-o-Call.

He said a few years ago, First Night gave up a hall in SeaGate Centre for a large organization to use and the members attended First Night activities without buying tickets.

Port-o-Call's Ms. Goolsby said her members aren't interested in First Night. “Why should we pay that amount of money when we can stay here?” she said.

The performing arts council has a written agreement to have first right of refusal through 2015 for the use of SeaGate Centre, Mr. Donnelly said.

The convention center charges the performing arts council a greatly reduced fee for the facility. “It's a community event. We're trying to be good corporate citizens,” he said.

SeaGate makes about $5,000 on concessions sold during First Night. However, a sit-down dinner and cash bar in even one hall would generate thousands more, he said. SeaGate Centre earns 25 percent on food, bar, and parking.

For the Radisson, the event would have generated more than $50,000 in room sales, which would result in more than $7,000 in taxes. Of that sum, more than $4,000 in hotel taxes would be earmarked for SeaGate Centre debt as well as operations of the Greater Toledo Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Bruce Lingsweiler, the Radisson's director of marketing and sales.

In previous years, the Radisson rented a ballroom to First Night for $1,500, said Mr. Sapara. But last Dec. 31, the Radisson gave the performing arts council use of the ballroom in exchange for 200 First Night tickets. It rented 230 rooms on New Year's Eve, he said. “That's nothing to compare to 350 rooms times two,” Mr. Sapara said.



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