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Optimism reigns as Utahns greet ’03

S.L., Ogden, Provo, St. George revel in First Night events

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Along with the optimism and chance for a fresh start that each new year offers comes the blessing of saying goodbye to the past year and the regrets and tribulations that came with it.

After all, as therapists have long asserted, letting go of regrets is healthy, and being optimistic for the future is a key ingredient in staying happy.

Revelers in Ogden, Provo and St. George celebrated in similar style with their First Night events.

In Salt Lake City, Benjamin Donner — who was named the city's first First Night Town Square mayor for Tuesday's celebration — and his wife Adrienne provided testimony to those assertions. Benjamin Donner told a cheering crowd that the couple will become first-time parents via adoption later this spring, an event they believe will finally erase the disappointment of a failed adoption involving twin girls in 2001.

In the 28-year-old West Jordan man's First Night mayoral contest essay, Donner said he wanted to use the mayor's appointment as a platform to tell his wife of the impending adoption, expected to occur sometime in May when the child is born. He later confessed that he couldn't wait until the title was official, informing his wife prior to Tuesday night's celebration.

He told the large, cheering crowd in downtown Salt Lake City 90 minutes before midnight, "We just wanted to get up here and say tonight how proud we are of the courage they (the birth parents) had to do this." After the speech he recounted the meeting with the birth mother and the reasoning behind her decision: "She said that 100 years from now, it won't make any difference the kind of car I drove, the house I lived in, or the amount of money in my bank account — but that I could make a difference in the life of a child."

"The thing we feel the most," Donner said, "is how much of a paradox this is — that what we want so badly, someone else has the courage to give up."

Added his wife, Adrienne, 25, "It's going to be a wonderful New Year."

More than 50,000 people came together in Salt Lake City's downtown streets for the 10th annual First Night celebration to help — as the old adage goes — ring out the old and ring in the new.

During the opening ceremonies, Salt Lake County Councilman Randy Horiuchi observed that a proposed solution for the Main Street Plaza debacle involving Salt Lake City and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offers a message for the community as it makes its 2003 New Year's resolutions: "That we all try our best to heal all wounds."

Bob Farrington, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, said the number of people who rallied at this year's event mirrored past years despite tragedies at home and abroad during 2002, despite the sluggish economy and despite the weather that blew a snowstorm into northern Utah Tuesday morning, threatening to put a damper on the night's events.

The alliance has coordinated the massive festival since its inception, which in its first year in 1993 drew a surprising 30,000 folks and marked its pinnacle at the start of the new millennium with 90,000 attendees.

After a decade spent heading the show, Farrington has a theory as to why the annual event has continued to thrive: "Maybe we all just want to ring in the new year and celebrate as a community."

The festival has continued to grow more broad and diverse with each year, adding more breadth and more depth. This year's event featured a whopping 24 locations and 94 performers, focused mostly on local artists but also heralding some big-name entertainers as well, including the internationally recognized Latin jazz musician Poncho Sanchez.

This year's massive effort shifted its base from the Gallivan Utah Center to West Temple between 100 and 200 South (in front of the Salt Palace) "to keep things fresh, to keep things new" through the new effort to create a kind of town square atmosphere, Farrington said.

First Night rang in with opening ceremonies at 5:30 p.m. and a performance by Virginia Tanner's Children's Dance Theater. An offering of resolutions by local politicians and community activists followed.

And, amid the burning caldrons (intended to keep revelers warm throughout the downtown area), sidewalk huts offering everything from hot chocolates to mittens to slippers and Kettle Korn along West Temple between 100 and 200 South, a parade of children walked from the Salt Palace to the Olympic Legacy Plaza at the Gateway, some getting their first peek at the new Children's Museum along the way. They were then treated to a small fireworks display — the larger one slated for later, at midnight, in front of the Salt Palace as the thousands of revelers prepared to call it a night.

Just before the midnight extravaganza's glorious explosion, the crowd could be heard counting down the New Year's entrance — "10 . . . 9 . . . 8 . . . "

A few small groups even sang the traditional "Auld Lang Syne" together, sharing their love, relishing in the obvious spirit of community, hugging with hope.

Carol Walker, organizer of Provo's annual New Year's Eve event, said while the numbers there may have been down, "It was a great family event."

Walker said about 35,000 have turned out for the activities the past couple of years.

"I think it's a little low (this year), probably because of the weather. I think a lot of people changed their plans when they saw the weather early on," she said.

For those who made the effort, there was plenty of fun and even the unexpected, such as Miles Sorenson using the opportunity to ask Kendra Laurie to marry him. She said yes.

Some rode in a horse-drawn buggy to a restaurant for dinner, some learned to country dance and others in the crowd danced, sang to karaoke music, climbed a big rock, made crowns and noisemakers and had their faces painted.

In St. George, the reverie was a little more subdued — most venues shut down at 11 p.m. Still, that was an hour longer than last year's 10 p.m. closing, so maybe there is hope for a midnight rendezvous for the next First Night celebration.

Still, there was plenty to do on Historic Main Street, including the electric light parade, jazz music, dancing, food, games, and even fireworks at midnight for those who stuck around.

Contributing: Sharon Haddock; Nancy Perkins.

E-mail: nharrison@desnews.com