Easter is a moveable feast that falls somewhere between March 22 and April 25 depending on the vernal equinox. The Roman Catholic Church mandates the 40 days before Easter as a period of fasting and penance called Lent. To get in as much fun as possible before Ash Wednesday ushers in the Lenten deprivations, the tradition of Mardi Gras arose – the term literally means “Fat Tuesday.”
The annual bacchanal that is Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a legendary party known around the world, perhaps rivaled only by the similarly themed Carnival in Brazil. Several cities along the Texas Gulf Coast have established Mardi Gras traditions of their own in recent years
Galveston Island celebrated Mardi Gras as early as 1867, but the party had died down until it was revived in 1985 by Galveston-born developer George P. Mitchell, who had a new hotel complex and other properties he figured would benefit from an influx of off-season tourists. In the 27 years since the revival, the event has grown to impressive size. The celebration in Galveston this year runs from Feb 10-21 and will feature 26 concerts, 24 parades, 19 balcony parties and five elegant masked balls.
According to Leah Cast, public relations manager for the Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau, “Mardi Gras is our biggest event – it’s an event that defines the city and everyone gets involved in it. Economically, it’s huge for us.”
Cast said the event kicks off on Feb. 10 with big festivities on the weekends and Fat Tuesday, which falls on Feb. 21. She said the crowd estimates for that period approach 300,000 with an economic impact around $30 million.
“A lot of people don’t realize that outside Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Galveston has the largest Mardi Gras in the country,” noted Cast.
The success of the 1985 Mardi Gras revival in Galveston did not escape the attention of civic boosters in Port Arthur, some 80 miles to the east. The traditions associated with Mardi Gras of Southeast Texas date back to the year Bill Clinton became president. The first festival in 1993 was relatively small in size as compared to more recent events. Mardi Gras here has not just survived but flourished thanks in large part to support from elected and administrative officials, public works, police and fire departments and about 1,200 volunteers.
When they block off Procter Street in downtown Port Arthur from Feb. 16-19 for Mardi Gras, the residents of the city by the sea will brace for the annual invasion of 250,000 of their closest friends and neighbors. Area businesses will roll out the welcome mat for the visitors who will leave a large chunk of change in cash registers around town. Exact calculation of the dollars spent is an inexact science, but we’re talking millions in a span of only four days.
“Based on the formulas from economic development groups and chambers of commerce, a dollar turns over six times,” said Mardi Gras Southeast Texas (MGSET) co-founder and past president Floyd Marceaux in a 2011 interview with the Business Journal.
“Whenever we total up all the income – say, $500,000 – we said $3 million was the economic impact; we tended always to be conservative, but we’ve seen other festivals that stretch that number,” reported Marceaux.
Tammy Kotzur is executive director of the Port Arthur Convention and Visitors Bureau. She said Mardi Gras is one of the highlights of the city’s annual calendar.Like Marceaux, she is conservative when trying to estimate the economic impact of Mardi Gras – or any other event.
Although she won’t put a number on it, Kotzur knows Mardi Gras has Port Arthur cash registers singing. “Direct economic impact includes hotel rooms, because the hotels are always sold out Mardi Gras weekends; restaurants because despite the fact (visitors) go down to Mardi Gras they don’t spend the entire time there; gasoline for their vehicles. Shopping? You’d have to say yes,” she said.
The good will from the Mardi Gras of Southeast Texas continues as the nonprofit festival makes significant annual contributions to local nonprofit groups. “In 2010, MGSET contributed $100,000 to the nonprofit organizations that sponsor the event,” said Marceaux. “The board makes the annual allocations based on revenue, expenses, and what our needs could be next year. The contribution to each group ranges from $1,000 to $5,000 each year.”
On a smaller scale but just as much fun is Mardi Gras on the Sabine, the annual parade sponsored by the Greater Orange Area Chamber of Commerce. A one-day event held this year on Feb. 11, the parade attracts thousands of participants and viewers from Orange County and beyond, with fans driving in from the Houston area and throughout Louisiana.
“This is our ninth year for Mardi Gras on the Sabine,” said Ida Schossow, Chamber president. “We don’t charge admission so the exact economic impact is harder to measure, but we’ve got thousands of people coming in and staying in our hotels, eating in our restaurants and shopping in our stores, so it’s a definite shot in the arm for the Orange economy.”
Business Journal editor James Shannon offers a weekly column of business news for readers of The Examiner. For more details, see the editions of the Business journal published monthly in Beaumont, Port Arthur and Greater Orange. Check out the blog at setxbiz.blogspot.com.