On a recent afternoon, in a second-floor, walk-in closet-sized office overlooking Belfast’s central intersection, Mary Mortier was sitting — as many do in offices these days — in front of a computer. Her focus, however, was on the wall just beyond, and a decidedly low-tech arrangement of color-coded sticky notes, most of which had been moved enough times to need a piece of Scotch tape or two.

The “jigsaw puzzle,” as she calls it, amounts to a map of the upcoming New Year’s by the Bay celebration, and though it looks simple, the chart emcompasses scores of variables: 35 acts and attractions spread over roughly 12 hours, and as many venues, each with its own audience capacity and vibe.

Also considered are the tastes and tolerances of audiences ranging from children and their parents, to older adults who like their entertainment low-key and on the early side, to the traditional First Night revelers who come prepared to stay out as long as some place is open. The factors combine into the kind of algebra for which computers were designed. Mortier, however, prefers to do it by hand.

New Year’s by the Bay celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, and Mortier, with her jester’s cap — which, in color, matches her array of sticky notes — and apron strung with a dozen admission buttons from previous New Year’s celebrations, is for many who have attended over the years, the face of the event. But she didn’t start it.

In fact, she didn’t attend the first year.

When Mortier addressed the Belfast City Council recently to announce the upcoming celebration, her description started with a memorable visual of the city’s First Nights before New Year’s by the Bay came along, written by the event’s founder, Jennifer Hill:

“Folks here said that you could roll a bowling ball down Main Street on New Year’s Eve in Belfast; it was that quiet here on the big night,” it began.

In recent years, the same bowling ball would have taken out a dozen drummers, dozens more innocent revelers and possibly caught fire on its way to the bay, but that’s skipping ahead a bit.

Hill got the idea for New Year’s by the Bay after bringing her daughters to a New Year’s Eve celebration in Portland to ring in 1997. She didn’t have much money, but had saved up enough to go, and the event surpassed her expectations. There were live performances around the city, and because the event was “chem-free” (no alcohol was served), her children could go to all of them.

At one point Hill caught a glimpse of them sitting at a folding table in the downstairs of one of the venues, eating pie and looking precociously grown up. They weren’t watching a ball drop on television. The adults in attendance weren’t drunk. It changed her thinking about New Year’s Eve.

“I thought, ‘We could do this in Belfast,'” she said.

Organizational meetings for the first Belfast New Year’s by the Bay celebration started that January as a series of ad hoc gatherings at various downtown restaurants. On one of these occasions, she recalled, the owner of the restaurant objected to the large group of people, some of whom hadn’t ordered food or drinks.

“Those people are going to make sure your restaurant is jammed on New Year’s Eve,” Hill told him.

There was a contest to design a logo for the buttons, won by Lola Fennimore, then-12, who submitted a drawing of a jester. Jan Riddle, a local stay-at-home mom and aspiring designer, contributed a graphic of a sailboat on the water with fireworks above for use on the programs. As Hill tells it, the sailboat was nixed and a tugboat put in its place after board member David Abbott accused it of looking more like Camden Harbor than Belfast. Both the jester and the tugboat have reappeared from time to time in promotional materials over the years.

Recalling the Portland event further, Hill set out two conditions on which she refused to compromise: New Year’s by the Bay had to be a cultural event — meaning music, poetry, storytelling, dance, etc.; and it had to be chem-free. Both ideas were challenged, she said. But they won out, and have more or less endured.

The inaugural New Year’s by the Bay celebration was arguably as complete as any that followed.

“Everything was considered,” Hill said.There were contracts for performers, contracts for venues, the event organizers incorporated their group as a nonprofit, and businesses were enlisted as sponsors. Stores located as far away as Bar Harbor, Augusta and Rockland sold the all-access admission buttons.

By one newspaper account from the time, 2,500 people attended. Stories of a city under friendly siege abounded: a pizza parlor had reportedly run out of dough; a Chinese restaurant, likewise, was said to have sold out of rice.

At midnight, Hill recalled watching the fireworks display over the bay with her daughters.

“Look what we did,” she remembered saying. “I think it was a real inspiration to them. It was to me.”

Despite the success, or maybe because of it, Hill quit after the first year. She was starting an event planning business and the festival, on one level, had been a way to show the city what she could do. Now that it was established, what the event needed was a manager, she said, and the money — a $5,000 stipend — wasn’t enough enticement for Hill to stay on.

The celebration continued under a different executive director each of the next three years, until Mortier, a New York transplant who had started as a volunteer several years earlier, began her tenure after being hired to head-up the 2002 celebration.

Outwardly, New Year’s by the Bay continued to be a major success under Mortier, but inwardly it began to collapse. As Mortier describes it, many of the original volunteers moved on, and replacements were harder to come by. Many who signed on were enthusiastic but got bogged down with other commitments. Mortier took up the slack, but as a result, she became the go-to person for the festival. Delegating work gradually became more time-consuming than just doing it. But that meant doing more.

As revenues declined, Mortier’s stipend was cut from the budget. Today she is still not paid for her work, and while her love of the event leads her to downplay the significance of that, the cut probably contributed to her coming to the conclusion several years back that the annual festival had become taken for granted.

On the eve of the 2009-10 celebration, meteorological conditions conspired to cover local roads with ice, making for unusually low attendance. After expenses, there was not much left to carry forward, and basic operating costs of running the organization — keeping a post office box and a website, printing and other expenses — ate up the rest.

By the following October, there was $24.71 in the organization’s checking account. Mortier recalled the figure easily, as though it had been burned into her long-term memory over the course of many sleepless nights.

“It was hand to mouth. I was booking as the money was coming in just to make sure I had enough to pay the bills,” she said.

There was a fundraising dance that helped, but Mortier also had to cut some corners, reusing buttons from past years by artfully concealing the date with star-shaped, foil stickers.

Hoping to make the most of a dwindling box of fancy, color-printed NYBB stationary, ordered in flush times, Mortier affixed an updated logo to a single sheet and used it to make black and white photocopies.

If nothing else, the weather was kinder that year, and the 2011 New Year’s by the Bay netted enough in button sales that Mortier was able to bring back a handful of features for the coming year that were previously jettisoned for lack of money.. These include horse-drawn carriage rides and a selection of afternoon events for children and families, some of which will be free.

Despite the general hardship, austerity hasn’t been all bad for New Year’s by the Bay. In the case of the bonfire at the public landing, which replaced the more expensive fireworks displays of previous years, the cheaper pyrotechnics probably spoke more to the idiosyncrasies of Belfast.

Mike Hurley, whose activities over the years — including the Belfast Bear Fest and his naming of the city’s first poet laureate — have gone a long way toward defining what it means to be “Belfastian,” sparked the first bonfire using donated lumber and old Christmas trees.

Ironically, Hurley wasn’t part of the first New Year’s by the Bay celebration, and apparently was disinterested enough that his weekly column in the Waldo Independent, published after the event, was split between praise for Hill and other organizers, and a kind of apology for doubting that it would work.

“The first time to make something happen when people don’t believe it’s going to work [is hard] — and there’s all kinds of people … if you need people to tell you something’s not going to work, you’ve come to the right town. But it turned out to work … and it’s been fantastic, and it’s hard to imagine a Belfast New Year’s Eve without it,” wrote Hurley.

After seeing an all-drum ensemble at the Village Halloween Parade in New York City, Hurley bought some cheap drums on eBay and started another New Year’s Eve tradition, the “Drum and Rabble.” The ramshackle parade starts just before midnight at the intersection of Main and High streets with a nucleus of volunteer drummers and a sprawl of revelers tapping out rhythms on bottles, pots, pans and whatever else. The ensemble breaks briefly for a countdown, then makes its way noisily to the bay and the bonfire.

While some costs were cut along the way, organizers have put an emphasis on paying the bands and other acts. Many could find gigs elsewhere on New Year’s Eve, so this was as much a practical consideration as an ethical one. Possibly as a consequence, many acts have returned year after year. Enough so that Mortier started requiring perennial favorites to take a year off for every three that they appear. Crowd pleasers returning from furloughs this year include The Blue Hill Brass and The Katahdin Valley Boys.

As the organizer of the event, Mortier’s New Year’s Eves have generally been spent running between venues and circulating among the crowds. Her strongest memories, fittingly, have less to do with performances than with the people who came to them.

There was the bride and groom one year who supplied their wedding party with admission buttons. Another year, Mortier recalled talking with a couple recently relocated to Belfast from Oklahoma. The conversation took place on the horse-drawn carriage, and was probably made more memorable for being the only time Mortier ever took the ride. The driver also happened to be making an unusually long circuit, so Mortier pointed out the local sites like a tour guide.

Then there was the year David Mallett played a pair of shows at the 200-seat First Church. The booking vastly underestimated the singer-songwriter’s popularity. Making matters worse, in a manner of speaking, the shows were featured on the front page of the arts section in the Bangor Daily News. Mallett fans came from around the state and many were turned away. Having traveled to see Mallett, most didn’t stick around, and as Mortier sees it, they missed out.

The basic makeup of New Year’s by the Bay has remained very similar over the years, from the number of venues and attendance figures, to specific performers. But some things have changed. The $5 buttons that were credited in articles from the time for the large crowds in 1998, are now $15. In an effort to encourage advance sales, the price is slated to go up to $18 after Dec. 29. Children’s buttons are still $5, and volunteers can get free admission in exchange for two hours of work on the night of the event.

In keeping up with the times, NYBB started a Facebook page this year, and buttons can now be bought online via PayPal. A link, along with the most up-to-date schedule of events appears on the festival’s website, nybb.org.

Asked what else is different about New Year’s by the Bay 15 years later, Mortier’s comments suggested that the event hasn’t changed as much as the world around it.

Referring to one of the founding ideas of the festival — offering young people cultural experiences that they might not otherwise have been able to experience in the Midcoast — Mortier noted that today’s youth are more “plugged in” than they were in 1998, when residents of Waldo County, for better or worse, were relatively isolated from the rest of the world. Via the Internet, they now have access to performance and cultural offerings from around the world.

Then again, accounts of the most memorable events usually come with the disclaimer that “you had to be there.”

“So let’s say ‘live’ performances,” Mortier said. “It exposes them to live cultural experiences.”