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City seeks private group to run First Night festivities

A VW Bus took part in the First Night parade on Dec. 31.
A VW Bus took part in the First Night parade on Dec. 31.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File

It is one of the city’s most treasured events, a time to celebrate the old year and ring in the new.

For two years, the City of Boston has kept the struggling First Night festivities afloat, after organizers fell on hard financial times.

Now, the city has decided to let someone else run the arts spectacular.

Officials are expected to announce Thursday a plan to return the event to a private group that can manage, plan, and operate it.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration will begin soliciting bids for the project Monday. Deadline is noon May 18.

“We are not in the business of running events like this,’’ Walsh said. “We can handle small events. First Night is logistically a fairly large event with many different moving parts.”

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A Walsh spokeswoman said the administration is optimistic a private group will step forward to be steward of an event that has attracted thousands of revelers to a frigid tableau each New Year’s Eve. If not, spokeswoman Laura Oggeri said, “we will reevaluate our options at that time.”

Walsh said the event has been a massive undertaking, and the city believes the festivities would be better served in more capable hands. The mayor noted the event’s mainstays: a pre-New Year’s Eve fete at the Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center, a parade down Boylston Street, fireworks on Boston Common, and a light show and ice sculptures outside the central library in Copley Square.

The city’s policy chief, Joyce Linehan, said the goal is to find a group that wants to leave its imprint on the popular New Year’s Eve festival.

“The city is seeking a creative group of people who can inject new life and perspective into an event that many people look forward to on New Year’s Eve in Boston,’’ said Linehan, who served as the event’s media relations director for 13 years.

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First Night Boston originated in 1976, when Clara Wainwright convened a group of artists and a psychiatrist around the dinner table at her Arlington home. They imagined a family-centered alternative to traditional alcohol-laced New Year’s Eve celebrations. The event would start earlier in the day and would involve artists reflecting on the year past and the year ahead.

The nonprofit First Night Inc. was born.

“We had these crazy dreams that really resonated with people,’’ said Wainwright, who now lives in Cambridge. “And the city didn’t pay much attention to us. We had few police there. I don’t think people thought people would go.”

Throughout the years, the small arts celebration ballooned from thousands of revelers in churches, halls, and subway stations, to more than a million people, with celebrants braving freezing temperatures to view spectacular displays. City employees, including police and firefighters, kept watch.

The event also proved to be an economic boon, boosting hotels and restaurants and generating millions of dollars in revenue for businesses, officials from the previous administration had said.

By early 2013, First Night Inc. was in trouble. It had been hit hard by the Great Recession and lingering tough economic times. Philanthropic support and corporate sponsorships declined.

The event got a lifeline when former mayor Thomas M. Menino vowed the city would keep the celebration going. At a press conference that December, he encouraged people to come to Boston to welcome 2014.

“Boston is the place to ring in the New Year, and this year will be spectacular,’’ Menino said at the time.

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The First Night procession for 2014.
The First Night procession for 2014.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The Walsh administration’s tourism and entertainment office took charge of the event the next year, marking the arrival of 2015 and managing finances and programming.

But the administration decided the event was too difficult for the city to run and that a private entity should take over.

If a successful bidder emerges, that group will enter into an agreement to raise money and design the festivities for First Night 2016. The contract would be for one year, with the option to add two years if the partnership is successful, the document said.

“The award shall be based upon a determination by the city of the most advantageous proposal from a responsible or responsive proposer,’’ wrote the city’s tourism and entertainment director, Kenneth Brissette, in the document seeking bidders.

Through the partnership, the document said, officials hope to assess how best to continue the event and whether it is sustainable.

Walsh said he is hoping the successful bidder has experience in the field and can build on the current celebration.

“It’s an opportunity for someone in the business to come in and continue it and make it better,’’ Walsh said.

The new group will need to raise money. City officials said that at its height, First Night’s budget was more than $2 million and festivities were held for three days. But the budget shrank over time. Last year’s budget, for instance, was $678,000, a top Walsh official said. Money earned from sales of First Night buttons for admission into indoor events was $254,000, the official added.

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Money raised from philanthropic organizations and corporate sponsorships totaled $435,000, officials said.

A failed balloon dampened the 1976 celebration.
A failed balloon dampened the 1976 celebration.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.