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Ocean City gears up for its clean First Night

OCEAN CITY, N.J. - The air and the ocean are cold. Leaves have fallen from the trees. No one is lounging on the beach.

OCEAN CITY, N.J. - The air and the ocean are cold. Leaves have fallen from the trees. No one is lounging on the beach.

Yet, in the dead of winter, it's been known to look a lot like summer here when throngs come out for this Jersey Shore resort's First Night, a family-friendly New Year's Eve celebration that has drawn tens of thousands of revelers in past years.

By Monday afternoon, locals are hoping for traffic jams at bridge toll booths, lines out the door at a few restaurants, a couple of "no vacancy" signs posted at motels. If all goes right, a big crowd will likely gather on the boardwalk late in the evening.

This will be the first big event here since Hurricane Sandy hit two months ago - and local officials, business owners, and others are keeping their fingers crossed that this First Night event will bring the big crowds back to this Cape May County resort.

The entertainment lineup, which will begin at 4 p.m., includes more than 60 acts, with everything from magicians, jugglers, and puppeteers to a Mummers string band, a popular children's pop band, and a gospel choir. The event culminates at midnight with a huge fireworks display over the ocean.

For weeks, crews have been primping and polishing venues where some of the scheduled performances will take place. Event participants purchase $15 buttons, which allow them admission to any of the 18 venues, including the rides at Gillian's Wonderland Pier. Although many of the venues are downtown and within walking distance of one another, there will be free shuttles to move participants from place to place. Dinner will be available for an additional charge in the cafeteria of the local high school. Last year, 10,000 buttons were sold, and thousands more people packed the boardwalk and streets to see the free fireworks.

Proceeds benefit local charities, including an Ocean City High School scholarship fund. The hotels, restaurants, and shops that have stayed open through the winter - and recovered from Sandy - hope for a midwinter boost in sales.

"There seems to be a perception in people's minds that everything here was devastated by Sandy. We hope that people will come back and see that's not true," said Mark Soifer, the city's publicist and member of Ocean City's First Night planning committee.

First Night is a national artistic and cultural celebration that began in Boston in 1975 as an alternative to the alcohol-laden parties and events often associated with New Year's Eve. The concept grew in popularity, and over the decades about 250 cities in the United States and Canada hosted the events.

Loss of funding during the recession has forced the scaling back or cancellation of the event in some locales; now only about 75 cities host the celebrations, according to the nonprofit association First Night USA. First Nights in South Jersey include Haddonfield and Mount Holly.

When the annual event began in Ocean City in 1991, a couple of hundred people participated. Last year, the city sold out of its 10,000 buttons by early evening Dec. 31.

This year, the storm caused a late start selling the buttons, and pre-event sales are behind last year's numbers, said Michele Gillian, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce.

But since Ocean City is "recovered, restored, and ready" for visitors, she said, officials are optimistic about another sellout.

"We will have people who come every year, and we are hoping that there will be many people who will want to come down and show support for such a strong, resilient community," Gillian said.

While areas in Cape May County and neighboring Atlantic County did not suffer as much damage from Sandy as Jersey Shore neighbors to the north in Ocean and Monmouth Counties, she said, certain segments of the business community in Ocean City did suffer significant losses when the storm put downtown under several feet of water.

"The majority of the boardwalk did not sustain any major damage, but our downtown took on a significant amount of water," said Gillian, calling the reopening of as much as 90 percent of the six-block-long downtown's 120 shops and businesses over the last weeks "nothing short of a miracle."

"The way that people worked together here was an amazing thing to see," Gillian said.