By SHELBY MERTENS
Daily News-Record 12/27/18
HARRISONBURG — Terry Burkholder, who was tasked with reviving First Night Harrisonburg eight years ago, is retiring in the new year, making way for a new executive director.
The community New Year’s Eve celebration on Monday will be Burkholder’s last. Michael John Betts will take the reins on Jan. 1. “This is my eighth year and First Night continues to grow every year, and in passing the baton to Mike, I feel very confident that First Night will continue to grow and provide
excellent family- friendly events on New Year’s Eve in the future,” Burkholder said.
First Night features live music and entertainment, food, and children’s activities at several venues around downtown Harrisonburg, culminating to the ball drop in Court Square at midnight. The event has drawn anywhere from 1,500 to 4,000 people, depending on the weather.
First Night, a tradition that began in Boston in 1976, was brought to Harrisonburg in 1992. The local event was held each year on Dec. 31 until 2010, when it was discontinued for a year.
Burkholder worked with Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance to make First Night a successful event again on New Year’s Eve in 2011.
“First Night was struggling eight years ago so I accepted the responsibility of reviving First Night after being off one year,” he said. “We were having trouble finding enough volunteers and finding board people to carry on the tradition.”
Burkholder said he originally planned to serve as First Night’s executive director for only a couple of years, but the people he worked with kept him coming back.
“I’ve enjoyed working with the volunteer board, with many vendors in the community that included a lot of volunteers who made First Night successful from year to year,” Burkholder said. “I have no regrets of what has been accomplished, and I have great confidence that the volunteer board and the new director are taking it to the next level to improve it year by year.” Incoming executive director Betts has shadowed Burkholder during preparation for this year’s event to learn the ropes. Burkholder said he will continue to mentor Betts during his first year in the position. “I have some big shoes to fill,” Betts said. Betts comes to the position with years of experience in event planning and marketing for private and public companies.
Betts, 57, is the founder and race director of the biannual Grand Caverns Signature 5K, a USA Track and Field certified 3.1-mile race with a 1-mile alternative. The race, held every April and September, was started in 2012 after Betts and his family moved to the Valley from Tampa Bay, Fla., in 2011.
“It was just my way of reaching out to my new home,” he said. The 5K race is a fundraiser for Grand Caverns Park, where it is held.
The Grand Caverns Signature 5K has raised $20,000 for the town of Grottoes to install various outdoor fitness stations along the trail in the park. The nonprofit is raising funds for a new $ 70,000 playground. Betts is also the race director of Bluestone Running’s Teachers 1/10th Marathon, a 2.62-mile run that was held for the first time in September to help local teachers with out-of-pocket classroom expenses.
He volunteers with several community organizations, including the Grottoes Ruritan Club, Aletheia Church, the Shenandoah Valley Track Club and the James Madison University Football “chain gang.”
Betts has helped with other area races, such as the Mountain Valley 10K, held at Mountain View Park in Grottoes, and has served as a course marshal for VA Momentum’s Valley Fourth Run and the Rocktown Turkey Trot.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in communication from the University of South Florida and a master’s degree in media management from Regent University.
After receiving his master’s degree, Betts spent five years working abroad. He did promotional marketing in Germany and England, as well as broadcast media in Lebanon and Israel. Betts worked for Time Warner Cable in upstate New York from 1998 to 2001, then moved to Florida and worked for Advance Newhouse/ Bright House Networks, a partnership with Time Warner Cable that has since dissolved, until he moved to the Valley in 2011. Betts and his wife also owned a country store and deli in Elkton from January 2012 until May 2017.
He was interested in leading First Night because, he said, it’s a “great community, family-focused event.” “I think it’s a great opportunity to explore the arts and get to go into some neat venues and just enjoy an evening and celebrate the new year when the disco ball comes down,” Betts said. For the past several weeks Betts has been observing how First Night operates before he meets with the board to begin planning the 2019 event. He said he’s open to new ideas. “Right now, I’m soaking up as much as I can, listening to various volunteers talk,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how this one goes and giving it my all going forward.”