The Montgomery County Executive’s Ball, described on its website as the county’s “single-most significant social, political, and philanthropic event of the year,” is going through a shake-up.
The glitzy arts and humanities fundraiser will no longer be held in December, its traditional date since the event was founded in 1986. Instead, County Executive Marc Elrich is tentatively eyeing March 15 as a good alternative, special assistant Debbie Spielberg said.
“We’ve heard from some people that December was a difficult time to plan an event like that because there’s so much holiday stuff going on at the same time,” she said. “Combined with the fact that this is a new administration, so we didn’t get caught up to speed on planning as quickly as we wanted. We just thought, ‘Is there a time it might be a little less crazy when we could plan it, instead?’”
Elrich also cited the departure of Catherine Leggett, wife of former County Executive Ike Leggett, as a significant factor in the ball’s delay. Catherine Leggett was deeply involved in planning the event during her husband’s time as county executive, Elrich said, and took much of that knowledge with her during the transfer between administrations.
A new date would change the original purpose of the event, first planned as a de facto inauguration ball for the newly elected county executive and council. The ball gradually became an annual function, but still serves as a warm hand-off between administrations every four years, Ike Leggett said.
It’s also a significant fundraiser for arts organizations in Montgomery County.
While the event is traditionally planned by the current county executive, council members typically allocate around $200,000 to match individual contributions made at the ball. The funds are then distributed to more than 80 local arts and humanities nonprofits by the Community Foundation for Montgomery County.
The 2017 ball raised more than $175,000 for arts programming in Montgomery County, according to its website.
Plans for the new date are still tentative, Spielberg said. While March 15 is being considered an alternative, the office hasn’t reserved a date for the ball at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, where Elrich still plans to hold the event.
The administration also hasn’t organized a steering committee or settled on a theme for the event, which usually includes a silent raffle to raise additional funding for the arts.
There’s also a question about the food. Historically, the gala has included a sit-down dinner and dessert — part of the justification for individual tickets that range from $125 to $150. But for his upcoming event, Elrich is considering “a different structure for the event that would be less expensive to produce,” he wrote in a letter to Council Member Craig Rice, chairman of the county’s Education and Culture Committee.
The cost of hosting the ball, including a full catered meal, meant that more of the proceeds went back into the event than to local arts organizations, Elrich added in an interview on Monday. Reducing those costs could allow more of the funding to go directly to beneficiaries.
“Basically, it takes a lot of money to put the ball on and you’re trying to raise money for the arts,” he said. “So, we’re considering other options to see if we can make it more cost-effective.”
Employees with the county executive’s office were handling most of the planning for the event, Elrich added, and he wasn’t sure how exactly the structure of the ball might change.
The administration is considering a cocktail-style event without a full meal, though planners haven’t decided if they would reduce the ticket price, Spielberg said.
“We’re thinking of something like appetizers or dessert instead of a seated dinner,” she added. “Because part of the fun is having the ability to get up and talk to people and move around.”
In his letter to Rice, Elrich also wrote that the administration would consider moving the event back to December on election years.
“I do realize that every fourth year, the event has doubled as a celebration for the newly elected Executive and Council,” he wrote. “We will be discussing the possibility of a September event every fourth year and how that might be incorporated.”