BY ART BUKOWSKI
TRAVERSE CITY — Those who help transform downtown Traverse City into a miniature Times Square on New Year's Eve still have sour feelings about thefts committed by one of their own.
But founders of the Cherry-T Ball Drop said Brian Sweebe's embezzlement won't sully the fledgling event's future. Despite Sweebe's crime and the publicity that came with it, the ball drop's goal remains the same — collect as much food for the needy as possible.
"The next step is to remain positive and realize that we have the best intentions with this event," group President Christal Wilcox said. "We are a good organization and this was just a little hiccup."
The ball drop, first held on Front Street on New Year's Eve 2009, has been a hit with many residents. A large, lighted ball that resembles a cherry is lowered to count down the last seconds of the year. Organizers encourage visitors to bring non-perishable food items, and they hope to collect thousands of pounds at this year's event.
Sweebe, an event co-founder, pleaded guilty in October to two misdemeanor embezzlement charges. Authorities believe he pilfered more than $2,000 from the event's accounts for a variety of personal uses. He received a 45-day jail sentence, but was allowed to serve most of his term in community corrections, a jail alternative program in which an offender is on a tether and regularly reports to corrections officers.
Sweebe declined comment for this story.
For those who run the event, the crime was especially disturbing.
"The personal relationships have been damaged. What do you expect?" said Cherry-T Ball committee member Dean Rose, who said he was especially close with Sweebe. "Nobody's said a cross word about anybody, but we all felt a little taken advantage of."
Sweebe's job was to pay local vendors for their services, but some vendors never received payment. That prompted an investigation that led to Sweebe's criminal charge. He eventually paid the group $4,100, a figure that took into account money Sweebe took, plus outstanding vendor bills, Wilcox said.
It also was difficult for Cherry-T Ball workers to deal with the criminal proceedings and resultant publicity.
"We just had to stop thinking about it, which was hard because it kept dragging on and on, Rose said.
The organization subsequently instituted stronger checks and balances, Rose and Wilcox said. Organization officials no longer issue ATM cards, have all checks signed by multiple people and study financial reports at every monthly meeting.
This year's event promises to be the best thus far, Wilcox said. There will be a DJ with live music, a U.S. Coast Guard fly-over and more, all of which organizers hope will boost the food drive.
"It's still going to be a fun party, but a party for a purpose," Wilcox said.