The Orange County Transportation Authority would like to make sure you get home safely New Year’s Eve by offering free bus service until 2:30 a.m., January 1. Discouraging people from driving drunk is a good idea, but sending a mailer to local residents encouraging them to “Live It Up!” in Fullerton’s downtown might be confusing to anyone who is planning to attend the city-organized alcohol-free First Night celebration, scheduled to take place in the middle of the same downtown.
First Nights are offered nationwide by participating cities. Fullerton advertises itself as the only city in Orange County to offer a First Night celebration, a family friendly alternative to traditional drunken revelries of New Year’s Eve. The city’s website describes it as an “annual alcohol-free New Year’s Eve celebration of the arts and will look to include children’s activities as well as live music, art galleries and a 10-minute fireworks show finale that will cap the celebration at midnight”. First Night Fullerton has been generally well attended. After a 2012 budget-related cancellation, the city increased sponsorship in order to provide what it claims is a cost neutral event.First Night has been celebrated downtown since before the area became saturated with bars and restaurants with full liquor licenses in the past decade. The alcohol-free event has existed fairly peacefully alongside the party district on one the major drinking holidays of the year, but OCTA seems to intent on confusing the two activities in a large postcard mailer recently sent to residents. “LIVE IT UP!” implores a headline on the front side of the card, along with instructions to “Go ahead and celebrate in Downtown Fullerton,” and “Hit the bars. Listen to Jazz. Enjoy a great meal. Or, attend First Night Fullerton. No need for a designated driver..,” In addition to being evidently clueless about the closing of Steamers, Fullerton’s only jazz club, over six months ago, OCTA seems awfully confused about what First Night Fullerton is supposed to represent. The back side of the card even features a multicolored map of the downtown area, complete with the locations of entertainment stages, the fireworks show, a “Kids Lane” with a giant bouncer, and nearly twenty different restaurants and bars, and their proximity to the bus lines offering free rides to presumably inebriated patrons.
It would be tempting to assume that someone at OCTA just didn’t get the message about First Night Fullerton, but the Rag’s conversation with a member of the transportation agency’s marking department proved otherwise. OCTA reportedly worked with both the Chamber of Commerce and the City of Fullerton to develop the mailer, which suggests a major conflict of interest between simultaneously promoting both a family friendly, alcohol-free night out and a roster of bars and restaurants who want to attract patrons on New Year’s Eve. The Chamber of Commerce, which receives taxpayer money from the City of Fullerton’s budget, ought to know the difference between the two, but was evidently comfortable colluding with OCTA to invite drinkers to downtown Fullerton in the middle of an annual family event designed as an alternative to a liquor-soaked New Year’s Eve.
The aforementioned OCTA marketing staffer who worked on the promotion acknowledged that the mailer should have explained in more detail what the First Night celebration was about, and that oversight, on that point, “was kind of missing.” She also acknowledged that the bars and restaurants had not paid to have their names listed, leaving residents to wonder why an Orange County government agency privileged free advertising of privately owned food and alcohol establishments over an alcohol-free public event organized by the City of Fullerton.
It could be argued that inviting prospective patrons to ride the bus both removes the danger of drunk drivers and frees up parking for First Night patrons, but how did OCTA get into the business of free promotional mailers in the first place? The agency, which regularly cuts bus services during the rest of the year ought to find ways to provide critically needed transportation for those who depend upon it during their long work weeks instead of inviting even more drinkers to our downtown area in the middle of an event designed to help families celebrate a safe holiday.