Eve of Destruction?
The City of Austin Throws the Party of the Century
In the race for the Worst Pre-Millennial Job Title in Austin, Kirk Watson and John Segrest seem headed for a photo finish. Together, they are the faces of Austin's pre-millennial tension. The city's officially sanctioned New Year's Eve celebration -- a downtown convergence regrettably dubbed A2K -- is Watson's brainchild. The charge of ensuring that it is the safe, fun, and well-coordinated event the mayor envisions falls to Segrest, the A2K event coordinator. On Dec. 31, both men will join what's expected to be a crowd of nearly 200,000 on Congress Avenue. And both admit they'll be there with their fingers crossed, sweating, even if the temperature dips into the 30s. Since the city began forming an A2K exploratory committee last March, the event has represented the city of Austin's largest logistical challenge to date. Never has the city planned an event for this many of its citizens. Never before has the city closed off downtown, all the way from Lavaca to I-35, and from Second to 11th. And few have attempted to raise more than a half-million dollars in sponsorships for a one-day event.
But of course, the unknown, uncharted, and highly volatile factor that most adds to an already anticipation- and frustration-filled event is the event's namesake, Y2K. As if the safety, accessibility, and winter storm concerns attached to inviting 200,000 people to a free event weren't troublesome enough, Y2K ushers in the dual fears of a global computer meltdown and domestic terrorism.
Already, the city's A2K contingency plans have their own set of contingency plans. And while A2K has inspired an unprecedented level of communication and cooperation between Austin's police, emergency, fire, transportation, solid waste disposal, and energy leaders, not one city official, nor Watson and Segrest, can unconditionally guarantee the city's preparedness or the event's ultimate safety. In fact, the only thing the city can count on, says Watson, is that a large chunk of Austin will be headed downtown to celebrate New Year's, A2K or not.
"Given that on Halloween and New Year's there already are in excess of 100,000 people downtown, our idea was to get ahead of the curve and plan an event that doesn't leave a whole lot of people downtown without organization," Watson says. "The goal is to provide for greater public safety by being organized on the front end for a night people were coming downtown for anyway."
It's Watson's contention that all he has commissioned are "a few stages, a name, and a logo." And although Austin already has an annual New Year's event sponsored by the East Sixth Street Community Association (ESSCA) that draws nearly 100,000 people annually for a star-raise (a reverse ball-drop), Watson and Segrest say their event is designed to distract, disperse, and ultimately entertain a crowd potentially twice the average size.
The debate over whether A2K is instead an opportunity for the city to cash in on Sixth Street's entertainment market, as ESSCA leaders contend, has already become the event's hottest political issue, and it has in turn spawned a few other relevant questions:
Operative Word: Why?
While Segrest seems to still be compiling full answers and accommodating plans for each of the charges and doubts leveled against A2K, Watson's defensive dates back to at least August, when A2K was still just a well-circulated rumor.
"Here's what's interesting," Watson said back in August. "If the city did nothing, the question would be, "What are you planning to prepare for this crazy night you're gonna have downtown?' And then the real story would be, "You mean the city isn't doing anything to prepare for that night?' All we're doing is trying to prepare for that night. We would be putting our heads in the sand to believe it's going to be a dead downtown that night.
"And even if we didn't have our A2K plan," the mayor continued, "somebody was going to want to close those streets and put some stages up. In fact, there was already talk of doing all that. Our thought was, if that's all going to happen anyway, how do we plan in advance to enhance public safety on a historical night?"
Local historians might want to note that the first millennium-inspired street closure took place at Seventh and Congress on Oct. 4, 1999. That's where Watson, just 88 days from A2K itself, unveiled plans for Austin to "sing and dance its way to a new century" at a sparsely attended press conference. Only about a half-dozen media outlets showed up to witness a "high-tech visual preview" of the logo and slogan -- a Batman-style A2K beacon and the tagline "Austin on the Verge."
But while attendance may have been light at the press conference, it was the reverse notion of 200,000 Austinites converging downtown that filled the bulk of the following day's local television and radio reports. Even at the press conference, one local reporter snickered, within earshot of the mayor no less, that he'd already seen the "high-tech visual preview" back when it was called "Woodstock '99."
With Segrest and the Austin Police Department projecting a potential crowd of 200,000-250,000 people, roughly one-quarter of the metropolitan area's entire population, A2K could fall just short of Woodstock '99, where the presence of nearly 240,000 attendees led to patches of violence and multiple arrests. Since Woodstock seemed to be a lesson on the dangers of too many super-aggressive, potentially riotous rock & roll bands piled on one bill, Segrest admits the city purposely compiled a bill of inoffensive, adult-leaning fare like Lyle Lovett, Kelly Willis, Robert Earl Keen, and Shawn Colvin.
Why Close Downtown? Obviously, A2K organizers and the mayor's office prefer to downplay the Woodstock comparisons and instead liken A2K to Austin's Halloween and New Year's celebrations. Both events have drawn as many as 100,000 people downtown without notable violence or arrest rates. So in an effort to secure similar results for potentially twice as many people, APD's earliest demand in the planning stages was that all of downtown -- from Lavaca to I-35 and Second to 11th -- be closed off to traffic. The resulting closures have led to what Segrest calls A2K's biggest headaches -- "accessibility issues."
Segrest is quick to point out that the logic behind the closure is solid: A pedestrian-only downtown gives people more space to disperse and opens traffic-free lanes to police, fire, and emergency vehicles that may need to cover long stretches of downtown quickly. Closing downtown to traffic also prevents a scenario where as many as 120,000 vehicles battle for the same 60,000 public and private parking spaces that cover the downtown area. Instead, partygoers will be encouraged to take Capital Metro shuttle buses that will leave from destinations across the city. But according to ESSCA leaders and a variety of downtown businesses, a downtown-wide closure also means that typical New Year's Eve accessibility to downtown bars, restaurants, and hotels is doubtful at best.
"The police were concerned about safety and having cars all over the place, so they suggested blocking downtown," says Segrest, who has dealt with street closures in planning more than a dozen Texas Brewers Festivals. "Unfortunately, that looks great on paper, but leaves every business downtown wanting their own little deal."
According to Segrest, each affected downtown business will be offered access to their regular parking facilities via an exemption "hang-tag." In theory, those VIP parking passes will come with instructions as to which barricaded checkpoint customers will be allowed to bypass. At restaurants and bars, each reserved guest will be allotted a parking space, while downtown hotels have been assured that their door-to-door check-in and luggage dropoff routine will not be affected. "Once we make arrangements with every business, it's safe to assume every downtown space -- be it the 700 spaces in Bank One Tower or the 5,000 spaces Classified Parking holds -- will be filled and accounted for," Segrest says. "That's why it's so important that everyone else, the four-in-a-car, we're-going-to-just-walk-around crowd, realizes they'll need to use the shuttle."
Already, some downtown businesses say the hang-tag idea looks better on paper than it will in practice. ESSCA President Bob Woody, who represents 38 downtown businesses, says he's concerned that the city-appointed gatekeepers will grow overwhelmed and begin turning away the hang-tags. "In 15 years down here, I've seen plenty of times where officers refuse to look at VIP passes," Woody says. "They just turn the cars around and tell them to go back to where they came from. As a driver, there's not much you can do at that point."
While the idea of partygoers who have made expensive downtown reservations getting turned away for parking may be aggravating for downtown businesses, a potentially more serious issue raised by the closure is drunk driving.
Will Alcohol Be Buzz Kill?
Originally, Watson declared that A2K would be an alcohol-free event. If partygoers wanted to drink, the mayor suggested, they could go to any number of Sixth Street or Warehouse District bars. In turn, APD Special Events Sergeant Darell Boydston said his office signed off on the event under the impression that it would be alcohol-free and that open-container laws would be enforced as usual. But while organizers have yet to announce their final decision on whether beer will be served only in "refreshment tents" or on the street itself, Budweiser has indeed signed on as a major sponsor, leading Segrest to admit that the mayor's alcohol-free announcement was premature.
Whether open-container laws are waived or not, the issue seems to be that every A2K partygoer of age will now have increased access to both alcohol and their vehicles -- particularly with the shuttles dropping drunken partygoers right back at their cars. Even on a typical New Year's, Sgt. Boydston says, he believes nearly half of the cars on I-35 are driven by drivers over the legal blood-alcohol count. "We wind up stopping only the worst of the bunch," he says. To make matters worse, over 300 of APD's 1,000 officers will be assigned to downtown, not the highways or neighborhoods.
For his part, Segrest says he'll award A2K merchandise to designated drivers, and work with the police and city on a pre-party public awareness campaign. "To some degree, we're relying on the public to make themselves responsible for each other," Segrest says. "We can make every effort to make sure there's not trouble at the event itself, but we can only hold their hands to the point where they have to take the initiative of, "Am I going to get hammered and try to drive home, or am I going to go with a designated driver?' And all along, we'll try to remind them of their personal responsibility."
Unfortunately, sheer numbers make it likely that many partygoers who declare themselves too drunk to drive will have limited luck finding a cab downtown. With 200,000 people and only 550 licensed taxis in the city, hailing a cab will be even more difficult than it is on Halloween, New Year's, or SXSW -- even though Segrest says cabs will likely have access within the closed area. Greater American Yellow Checker Cab GM Don McCurdy says he'll have every available cab on the streets, and that while other businesses may be reporting that it's difficult to field a workforce on New Year's Eve, the taxi industry seems exempt. "New Year's is always a "cab event,' like a Halloween or a weekend of SXSW," McCurdy says. "Cab drivers prepare themselves for nights like this. Nobody puts their cab in the shop a week before Halloween, and before SXSW, guys will drive at night a week in advance to acclimate. My drivers will gladly give up partying on New Year's because they'll be able to party three weeks on the money they make in one night."
Halloween may be the closest thing downtown bars or the taxi industry has seen to A2K, but the differences between the events are striking. First, not only is Halloween a single street closure (Sixth Street), but it also forces party-goers to walk in a circle around barricades, resulting in a relative sense of order, a lack of crowd clustering, and the ability for police to troubleshoot from within the barricades. And while A2K organizers are hoping to disperse crowds throughout downtown and between the two stages, at Third and Congress and Ninth and Congress, even to the point of staging dueling sets from Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, Sgt. Boydston says that establishing a strong police presence may be difficult with only a little more than 300 officers. "We'll be as visible as 300 officers can be in a crowd of 200,000," Boydston says. "We're faced with four times more land to cover than on Halloween, with only 100 or so more officers. You do the math." Even so, Boydston maintains that the biggest difference between New Year's and Halloween, which often falls on weekdays, is alcohol consumption.
"Halloween is about wearing a costume, seeing and being seen," Boydston says. "On New Year's, alcohol is the name of the game. The overall demeanor will be totally different."
Originally, Boydston says, the Austin Police Department told Watson they'd prefer the party didn't happen. Eventually, they signed off on a no-alcohol affair, reportedly on the condition that open-container laws stay in effect. "No drinking in the streets, period?" the Chronicle asked Watson in August. "Absolutely," he replied.
But while Segrest and the mayor appear to have flip-flopped on the alcohol policy when it became clear the event lacked the financial backing to go without at least one major alcohol sponsor, Segrest maintains that IDs will be checked carefully and that the caterer's license for the alcohol will likely be drawn by a nonprofit group.
But doesn't the change of plans also complicate police efforts?
"APD has been a part of the planning from day one," Segrest says. "I don't know that they were ever against this, I just think they were against any event where they couldn't be a part of the planning process. They're against surprises. And I don't think any of this is going to surprise them because they've been an integral part of the planning process."
For his part, Boydston says that while it's true that APD wasn't surprised by the flip-flop because of the department's extensive involvement in planning for the event, he nonetheless believes alcohol will only fuel what's already a potentially dangerous crowd. "Alcohol is going to be all over the place; it's the name of the game on New Year's," he says. "And all we can do is the best with what we have. The party and the drinking are going to happen whether we like it or not."
And while APD has yet to finalize its A2K strategy, Boydston says that every available officer not working the following day's shift will be assigned to downtown and that early plans call for a makeshift command post downtown, similar to the Fifth and Brazos command center the police build each year for Halloween. "No matter what we do at any big event, if someone goes in there and does something stupid, we'll have to try to take care of the problem. I'd just hope that people come down, have a good time, and then go away. Either that, or we just hope for a two-inch ice storm."
Capt. Don Smith of the city fire marshal's office seems slightly more optimistic than Boydston, but he also raises the possibility of an ice storm aggravating A2K and limiting downtown mobility for local fire and emergency workers. In fact, Smith also reluctantly mentions that the possibility of "gangs of hoodlums," terrorists, or computer crashes complicating his team's efforts. "We don't want to put anything in anyone's mind," he says. "But we have to consider and be prepared for anything. We'll have contingency plans for every scenario."
Preparing for the Worst
At meetings with A2K planners and the APD, Smith has already outlined a plan for increased downtown manpower, well-enforced fire lanes, and the creation of a special A2K battalion -- featuring separate engines and a specially created chief and chain of command. In addition, Smith says, the new battalion will also be a part of the makeshift command post and communication facility, ultimately sharing the new facility with EMS, APD, and Austin Energy officials. "We'll even have ham operators in all the fire stations in the event the phone lines should go down," Smith says.
Even with long-range planning committees and contingency plans, Smith and Boydston admit that the size of the crowd and Y2K add up to far more unknowns than the city generally feels comfortable with. But Segrest contends that focusing too much on the unknowns could detract from the planning necessary for handling the sure-things: large crowds, multiple stages, and alcohol sales. "Sure, there are a lot of unknowns, but it's like that with any outdoor event this size," Segrest says. "As an event planner, I can't be overly concerned about the Y2K stuff. It's the great unknown that has everybody asking "What if?' When I talk to Austin Energy and they're 99% sure nothing is going to happen, I'm pretty happy with that.
"Then again," he adds, "all it takes is one dipshit to go out, pick up a bottle, and smash it against a window. That's what's going to be said in the media the next day, not that 199,999 people had a good time. It's the one guy that threw the bottle against the Bank of America Tower and shattered a window that's going to ruin it."
Capt. Don Smith says at least one of A2K's unknowns -- whether the fire department will be too busy to enforce occupancy load limits in downtown bars and restaurants -- will be answered in a flyer the fire marshal's office plans to send to local businesses in early December. "We never forgo safety codes simply because it's a special night," Smith says. "Whether it's New Year's, Fourth of July, Halloween, or your grandmother's birthday, occupancy limits will be enforced."
Smith's warning may come as surprising and sobering news for bar and restaurant owners hoping to cash in on the added value of 200,000 downtown patrons. Even without A2K, most downtown bars and nightclubs typically have more potential customers than they can possibly serve. In fact, Smith and Woody estimate that the legal load for all of downtown's bars and nightclubs falls somewhere in the 20,000-30,000 customer range. Add the fact that several of the largest bars and restaurants in both the warehouse district and Sixth Street area will be reservation-only or closed altogether for private parties, and available space for the casual partygoer could number in the 10,000 range.
So why are Woody and other ESSCA members upset that A2K may bring 200,000 people downtown? Don't the numbers alone suggest that bars and restaurants won't have trouble filling their rooms beyond their limits?
According to Woody, the issues separating ESSCA and A2K are more complex than simply filling clubs. In fact, what's become arguably the event's biggest political struggle seems to come down mostly to competition, perception, reputation, and pride. Several of the issues between ESSCA and A2K have gone mostly undisputed.
A2K vs. Sixth Street?
For starters, ESSCA has actually been presenting a New Year's Eve celebration of its own -- a midnight star-raise -- for six years. The original idea, Woody says, was to attract people to Sixth Street without detracting from what the clubs had to offer, meaning that ESSCA's event never offered free live music or sold alcohol on the street. "Eight years ago, New Year's was a pretty good night downtown, but not a great night," Woody says. "People tended to have parties at home, go to a hotel or to a bar closer to home like Tangerine's. Our idea was to create something that would focus interest downtown and give people a reason to be there at midnight."
Over the past three years or so, Woody says, Sixth Street crowd estimates had grown to as high as 125,000 for an event that cost ESSCA only $75,000 to produce. And while Woody says his organization expected nearly twice the attendance this year for its millennium star-raise, he nonetheless initially agreed with A2K's early plan for a stage somewhere on Sixth. In theory, Sixth Street crowds are late crowds, and early-evening live music could help stimulate Sixth's overall business and bolster ESSCA's star-raise. But it's Woody's contention that once the mayor hired Segrest last June, and thereby shifted power away from the planning committees that once included representatives from both ESSCA and Friends of Sixth Street, the entire event had moved to Congress without ESSCA's knowledge.
Both Woody and Segrest agree that the initial stumbling block was Esther's Follies. After Esther's owner Shannon Sedwick complained to both organizations that a stage at Sixth and Red River would irreparably harm her building's accessibility, Segrest says, he began an unsuccessful search for a new stage location just off of Sixth. "By putting the stage on Red River and Sixth, we were saying you had all of Sixth for people to go nuts on. That way it was pushed as far back from Congress without getting right on top of I-35," Segrest says. "But Shannon was livid and willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that stage didn't go there. We looked at moving it up a few blocks, but the police said it cut too much into Sixth and that it cut out too much square footage. They said it just wasn't safe. And ultimately, we couldn't find a place businesses and police could agree on. But it's not like we're saying "Screw Sixth!' It's strictly logistical."
Even so, Woody believes that the effect of a Congress-only event may screw not only his star-raise, but also business up and down Sixth. According to Woody, not only will the city be selling alcohol and competing with live music venues on Sixth, but they'll also be chasing similar sponsorship dollars. Even worse, says Woody, is the fear that the idea of 200,000 people and the accessibility issues that come with a crowd that size could scare away regular Sixth Street crowds.
"It might have even been better if they had this on Auditorium Shores than if they had it on Congress," says Woody. "At least that way people could decide whether they wanted to head down there or come down here. Instead, we've found ourselves fenced in and in competition with the city when they should be protecting the little guys that do business down here year-round. Sixth is the entertainment district and the heart of downtown, but they've taken one of our best-known commodities, live music, and put it on Congress."
Ironically, both Segrest and Woody agree that it's entirely possible that fire codes and large crowds will leave well over 100,000 people who won't be able to find anything open to them downtown except one of the two street events, A2K, or the star-raise. The only sure thing seems to be that actual evidence of whether A2K actually winds up pulling business away from Sixth or crowds away from the star-raise won't be available until January 1. But Segrest says that assuming A2K draws 200,000 people, and given Woody and the mayor's assumption that 200,000 people would have come downtown either way, A2K can't possibly work against Sixth's best interests. "Bars on Sixth can only cater to so many people, and it's not like they're going to be able to double their number of people in and out anyway," Segrest says. "All these clubs can only hold so many people, and bars like the Iron Cactus, Pecan Street, and Maggie Mae's can only hold a couple hundred people at a time. If you can get into those bars and you have your own place to be, that's great. If you can't take 200,000 people and make it a good night for business, I don't know what to say. It seems like an opportunity, not a hindrance. And besides, all I did was take the stage off Sixth. It's not like I'm putting up a 10-foot brick wall with barbed wire and keeping people off Sixth. That's what they're saying we're doing and it's not the case at all."
Segrest may not be building a brick wall, but Sixth Street bar owners say it's hard to misinterpret A2K's "Countdown to the New Millennium" audio-visual show as anything but a slap at Sixth. Not only is it at Sixth and Congress, but it's also A2K's final focal point -- coming at exactly midnight and leaving 15 minutes for partygoers to leave the Lovett or Keen stages and head to the show. "Originally, ESSCA was only concerned about their star-raise and didn't want that diluted or overshadowed," Segrest says. "I was okay with that. They can have the star-raise. But when I suggested we move it to Sixth and Congress and make it a little bigger and a little brighter, they refused. So I told them I was going to do a big, huge light show, encompassing music, on a three-story building at Sixth and Congress, with lighting, speakers, and shining lights on the buildings and street. It's going to be a cool place to be right at midnight."
If any one entity is most caught in the middle in the fight over where people should be at midnight, it's the Austin Convention and Visitor's Bureau. As the city office charged with encouraging Austin tourism, the ACVB is actively involved with promoting both Sixth Street as the city's day-to-day entertainment district, and A2K as the city's official millennium party. At this point, the ACVB's Gwen Spain says that while she regrets that A2K and ESSCA couldn't get over their original misunderstanding over stage placement, she has always considered A2K and Sixth an "and" rather than an "either/or" equation.
"It ought to be a good night for Congress and for Sixth," Spain says. "People will come down, walk around, and hopefully add to Sixth's business. Maybe it will even bring down some people who don't typically get out much and in turn start them on supporting the clubs year-round. The idea is we're having a party for all of Austin, downtown. And to the partygoer, all that matters is the excitement and fun, not who made the arrangements. Who had something to do with who put what stage on what corner isn't going to be an issue for them. They're there to have fun on a big historical night."
Just how many out-of-towners will be having fun in Austin at A2K has also become a concern for both A2K organizers and Sixth Street bar-owners concerned with catering to their regular patrons. While both groups are sticking by the 200,000 estimate, the fact that San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston all lack significant city-endorsed New Year's events could mean extra carloads of people coming in from out of town, perhaps adding a significant drain to city resources.
Even so, it's another case where Watson seems to have flip-flopped. Back in August, Watson stressed that A2K would be marketed only to Austinites and that the city would bypass the "Hey, we're the center of Texas and the state capital" routine to attract New Year's tourists. And while it may have been funding issues that held off a public announcement until October, the fact that such late word would discourage out-of-towners was seen as encouraging.
Not for Austin Only
Then came the press release from the ACVB touting A2K's mentions in national magazines like Swing and Travel Weekly and the word that the ACVB is targeting another press release to the major networks with the hope they can get them to cover the event live. In the weeks since their original press release, ACVB has also helped the Associated Press, Us, Rolling Stone, and CNN cover Austin's millennial plans. Spain stresses that there is still no out-of-town advertising budget for the event; she also says that any national or regional interest the event garners may not only help Austin's year-round reputation as a tourism hot spot, but also encourage locals to head downtown for A2K.
"I see the national and regional interest the event is getting as a third-party endorsement," Spain says. "For a lot of people, if somebody out of town like CNN says it's good, then it's good. It could mean people don't leave town or people out on Anderson decide to come downtown for it. It adds to the overall excitement."
Unfortunately, says Segrest, the most likely effect of the national and regional press is that the third-party endorsement encourages out-of-towners who might not have advance word on full effects of the street closures, nor any civic interest in keeping A2K peaceful. "Large groups of out-of-towners are a concern," Segrest says. "There's not a whole lot going on in Texas. This is actually the only really big event in our time zone. And that's why we're getting the network interest and all the calls from the media. What do I say? "No comment?' We want to boast about the city, but I can't end the conversation with "And, oh yeah, don't come.' And while all that could theoretically open up the door for other people to come, it's impossible to regulate at a free street party. We can't card them and ask them where they live."
It doesn't take an event planner to see that the biggest upside of A2K, and the biggest attraction for locals and out-of-towners alike, is that it's inexpensive, if not free, entertainment -- a genuine New Year's Eve rarity. "You can come down with $10, get a couple of beers, a hot dog, and some great live music," Segrest says.
So how can the city afford to offer a free party?
Officially, Watson and Segrest say that the $500,000-700,000 cost of the event will be underwritten by contributions from corporate sponsors. Although Segrest has yet to officially name sponsors, he says the mayor's wife, Elizabeth Watson, and a team of professional fundraisers have nearly enough commitments already to cover the entire cost of the event, from the 150-person A2K support team to the lighting companies presenting the high-tech countdown. In addition, Mayor Watson says he hopes the city can raise enough funds to pay back the general fund for the nearly $100,000 in overtime costs it will incur in fire, police, and emergency services that a normal New Year's wouldn't demand.
What shouldn't be a surprise is that live talent fees represent A2K's largest cost by far. Segrest confirms that A2K's headliner, Lyle Lovett, will be paid nearly $175,000 -- almost twice the $100,000 fee he reportedly charges for private engagements. "Bands everywhere are charging two to three times their normal rate for this New Year's," Segrest says. "They know people want live music and they're going to pay for it."
Segrest says that while Austin loves its free music, he believes that some of the costs can be recouped by Austinites willing to pay for the convenience of a reserved seat. At press time, 1,000 reserved tickets are set aside for sale in November on a first-come, first-served basis at $100-150 a ticket. Segrest also says that plans call for only 20 rows of 50 seats, taking up less than 50-60 feet in front of each stage. "It's not like if you don't a have a ticket you'll have a crappy seat," he says. "There will be plenty of room."
Along with the sale of the reserved seats and several 20' x 40' merchandising tents full of A2K paraphernalia and memorabilia, organizers also hope to apply some portion of the alcohol profits to paying for the event. In truth, any efforts to turn A2K profitable before the event itself seem to only benefit local companies, in that Segrest says he's been careful to keep almost everything he contracts for in-town -- from High End Systems and Midnight Lighting to Big House Sound and Upfront Staging.
Of course, the downside of local businesses bypassing other party opportunities to work for the city is that everyone's taking a less-than-calculated risk on an outdoor event in December. Segrest claims that it's the idea of freezing cold, rain, or ice that keeps him up at night, not the risks associated with Y2K. "Weather is always an event planner's biggest headache," he says.
More immediately, Segrest says, he's faced with battling the never-ending series of unknowns that seem to be plaguing A2K. How will the alcohol sales be handled? Will TABC lift the ban on open containers? Will more live music talent with broader appeal still be available for last-minute booking? Can fundraisers find enough different sponsors without conflicting interests (i.e., two high-tech or two beer sponsors)? What will be the most effective drunk driving awareness campaign the city can endorse for A2K? Can Capital Metro supply enough shuttles? Can the rift between A2K and ESSCA be repaired? Will Segrest find enough private security officers capable of meeting the difficult and complicated standards of the Austin Police Department? The list of safety issues, Y2K concerns, and political quagmires only seems to be growing, with A2K only a couple of months away.
"Right now, the majority of my day is putting out the fires created by people not knowing how this event is gonna happen," Segrest says. "I'm still constantly getting calls from restaurants that heard their street is going to be closed and are worrying about their 300 people. And meanwhile, while I'm also calling the Port-O-Let guy for the best deal, I'm dealing with a Mr. GM on getting more parking passes. An event of this size may be only one day, but it involves an enormous amount of planning and a significant amount of politics."
It's still far too early in the process for Segrest to say if the headaches have ultimately been worth it, but the guy with perhaps the Worst Pre-Millennial Job Title in Austin says he'd much rather project his best-case scenario than hear another A2K critic's worst-case scenario. "Ideally, people will realize they can save some serious money and travel expenses by simply coming downtown," Segrest says. "Look, you're either going to believe the hype and stay home with water and rationed food, or you're going to say "It's New Year's! Let's go out and have a good time and get back at 12:30 to see if our phones work.' And I think the average person will just come down to have a couple of beers, watch the bands, sing "Auld Lang Syne" at midnight, and then try to get into a bar because we're going to stop selling. Hopefully, then they'll go home without any problems. I see it as a success if we can get a hundred to two hundred thousand people to come down and they walk away saying they saw a great show and that the city threw a cool party. We'll see how it turns out."