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Chamber drops Black & White Ball

18-year run had its share of bright spots, blown speakers
By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
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The party’s over for Auburn’s Black & White Ball. The late-summer mix of music, food and open-air partying had been a yearly fixture in Auburn since the first ball in 1992. But this year’s Aug. 29 event at the fairgrounds, which attracted 3,200 people and just barely broke even, could turn out to be the event’s last hurrah. Citing a back-to-basics direction that doesn’t include focusing resources on the Black & White Ball, the Auburn Chamber of Commerce board decided Wednesday to pull the plug on planning for next year’s event. Bruce Cosgrove, the chamber’s CEO, said that the decision was near-unanimous at the meeting. The feeling was that it’s critical at this time to refocus the chamber’s energy and resources, he said. That direction includes more emphasis on programs like the buy-local campaign, Think Auburn First. “We’re going to step back from the ball and redirect our energies,” Cosgrove said. “I’m convinced that it’s the smartest decision we can make.” The current economic downturn was felt at this year’s ball, which had been moved from Downtown Auburn because of mounting complaints from businesses there. Paid attendance reached 3,200, which was down considerably from 2008’s 5,300. Even with the recession, organizers had anticipated about 4,000 paid attendees, Cosgrove said. With businesses looking more closely at sponsorships, the Black & White Ball also failed to meet revenue expectations. Cosgrove said it made a profit, but just barely. With some accounting still to do, Cosgrove said the ball netted $4,500 – down considerably from an anticipated profit of $47,000. Cosgrove and chamber President Ann Rivero said the economy didn’t sink the Black & White Ball. Cosgrove said board debate about the future of the event and the direction of the chamber – ball or no ball – had taken place over the past three or four years. “It wasn’t so much to do with the ball,” Cosgrove said. “It was whether the ball was meeting the needs of the business community and consistent with chamber objectives.” Rivero said several factors had a cumulative impact on the direction the board took with the ball. She cited negative press coverage, the police stand on drunken driving emanating from the ball, Downtown Auburn merchants who didn’t want the ball back and the timing of the move to the fairgrounds as compounding Wednesday’s decision. “You put all these factors together and the handwriting was on the wall,” Rivero said. Rivero said that the chamber isn’t ruling out organizing another Black & White Ball in two years. “Or five years from now, we might have one again,” she said. “But it was pretty well unanimous to let it go so the chamber can concentrate on what it can do to help enhance the business community.” Ben Asgharzadeh, co-owner of Downtown Auburn’s Golden Swann gallery, had objected in recent years to what he said was the ball’s emphasis on alcohol and its turn away from being a community event the family could go to. On Wednesday, he expressed hope that it could return in the future as a tamer event that would take into consideration the needs of businesses. “It’s sad news,” Asgharzadeh said. “It’s a good event for Auburn and if they run it right, it can make money for everyone. The bad part for us was that it closed the streets for two days.” Gary Capps, a chamber board member who helped get restaurant participation the first two years, said he agreed with the drive to refocus and provide services for businesses. “Especially in this economy,” Capps said. “It’s getting back to basics, like a lot of businesses should be doing.” The boisterous, end-of-summer street party’s run provided a focus for the chamber and its 630 members. The ball had help from 400 volunteers, dozens of restaurants provided free food samples, and service clubs earned money for their charities from alcohol sales. It was also a high-profile sponsorship for many businesses. “We want to thank everyone who supported us, all the sponsors,” Rivero said. “We couldn’t have done this for 18 years without them.” ---------------------------------------- 18-year run had its share of bright spots, blown speakers Love it or hate it, the Black & White Ball was a part of Auburn’s social fabric for 18 years. Inspired by reports of a similar event in Palo Alto, the Auburn Chamber of Commerce began planning for the first Black & White extravaganza of music, food and socializing in late 1990. The first ball in September 1992 drew more than 1,000 people to Downtown Auburn. The second year brought Blood Sweat & Tears to the Black & White Ball stage but the experience was so negative that a nationally known group was never again hired. Each year, the ball had a different theme. Over the years, they included outer space, the Roaring 20s, world music, movies, old-time rock ‘n’ roll and in 2007 – Secret Agent 007. A new rule was enforced that year because of law enforcement concerns – no toy guns. By its fifth year in 1996, attendance had cracked the 5,000 mark. Lucrative sponsorships from a beer distributor and grocery chain upped the ante in the early part of this decade, with attendance peaking at 6,339 in 2003. For Auburn, with a population hovering around 12,000, the nighttime celebration was huge. More than 50 bands have appeared over the 18 years but nothing compared to the clash of egos in 2002 when Mumbo Gumbo and Dave Martin’s House Party cranked up their amps to try to play louder than the other. Mumbo Gumbo finally left the ball before their final set, blaming a blown speaker. With concerns about underage drinkers, ball organizers in 2006 banned anyone under 21 from attending. That same year, blanket patrols by law enforcement on the night of the ball resulted in 30 DUI arrests in the Auburn area. Four thousand attended the 2007 ball, which also marked the 100th anniversary of the Chamber of Commerce. Last year’s Black & White Ball was moved to an August date from its traditional September slot but couldn’t avoid growing gripes from some Downtown Auburn business owners about the impact of limiting traffic and closing off the ball area. The ball attracted 5,300 that year. This year’s Black & White Ball was moved to the Gold Country Fairgrounds for the first time and, battling a recession that cut into local disposable income, attracted 3,200 paid attendees. ~ Gus Thomson