Last New Year’s Eve, after the midnight countdown into 2017, the sky above Boston Harbor remained dark.
A 40-year waterfront fireworks tradition fizzled due to a lack of funding, disappointing some unsuspecting visitors — and hurting waterfront businesses.
But this year, the midnight fireworks are making a comeback, with a synchronized display set off from two barges — one near Long Wharf and the other in the harbor by the Seaport district — to maximize visibility.
While the midnight show is being marketed as part of the annual First Night Boston celebration, it’s actually the work of a group of waterfront organizations and businesses that raised about $80,000 to make sure the New Year’s Eve attraction returned, as First Night Boston focused its programming in the Back Bay.
Without that effort, the show would probably not have happened for a second consecutive New Year’s Eve, said Christian Merfeld, spokesman for Boston Harbor Now, a nonprofit focused on access to the waterfront. The group helped raise money for the show, along with the Wharf District Council and the Friends of Christopher Columbus Park.
“It comes down to community effort to make sure the fireworks came back because they were sorely missed last year,” Merfeld said. “I know some of the [waterfront] businesses were caught by surprise.”
The New Year’s Eve fireworks have traditionally been selling points for hotels and restaurants in waterfront neighborhoods, from the North End to the Seaport to East Boston.
“You don’t think about the harbor in January,” said Kathy Abbott, chief executive of Boston Harbor Now. “Anything that brings people into the waterfront and into those businesses in our cold-weather climate is important.”
The midnight fireworks display almost didn’t happen on New Year’s Eve 2015 due to lack of funding for First Night festivities, but the Boston Credit Union stepped in at the last minute to sponsor the show. That close call — and last year’s blackout — spurred waterfront organizations to begin fund-raising early this year to ensure there would be a show at the stroke of midnight.
Money woes have plagued First Night Boston for years, threatening to shut down the popular event a couple of times, most recently in 2013, when organizers revealed major funding had dwindled from $880,000 to $263,000. In its heyday, First Night Boston, the oldest celebration of its kind in the country, had a budget of about $2 million.
The city took over the event and in 2015 selected the Boston event-planning firm Conventures Inc. to continue organizing it. To make the most of the limited funding, Conventures scaled back festivities to the Back Bay, culminating with a countdown to midnight that featured live music and pyrotechnics in Copley Square.
Conventures has been running the event, which attracts 200,000 to 300,000 people, pro bono and on a shoestring budget of about $300,000, said founder and president Dusty Rhodes. Unlike in years past, when attendees had to purchase a button to attend some events, Conventures turned First Night into a free event featuring local artists and performers, ice sculptures, a figure skating show, a parade, and a 7 p.m. family fireworks display on Boston Common sponsored by the Mugar Foundation.
This year, the organization is adding an app-driven scavenger hunt to the roster of activities.
For the past three years, First Night has been funded by a rotating cast of about 20 sponsors, although Rhodes said that, ideally, she’d like to have 25 to 30 dedicated corporate sponsors. That would allow her to put some money away for the annual event instead of having to start fund-raising from scratch each year — an effort she described as “uphill sledding.”
“It’s not a revenue-making event,” Rhodes said. “Someday I’d like to be able to know that by summertime we have enough money in the bank . . . But we’re going to make it happen, no matter what.”
Rhodes said individuals have also stepped up to help fund the event, donating about $5,000 this year through First Night Boston’s website. She said she would like to see those donations reach $10,000 to $15,000.
“Even if people want to donate $10, great,” she said. “It benefits the arts and culture of Boston.”
First Night festivities will be broadcast live on NBC Boston, NECN, and Telemundo Boston.