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Mardi Gras pumps $10M-plus into Coast

ALONG THE COAST — Behind the balls, parties, parades and the purple/gold/green masks of Mardi Gras lurks a healthy economic impact. There is an estimated $10-million contribution from visitors on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for the final week of Mardi Gras alone.

“That’s a conservative estimate,” says Steve Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Cost Convention and Visitors’ Bureau (CVB). “Mardi Gras on the Mississippi Gulf Coast is getting more and more popular.”

Outsiders often seem surprised to find that Mardi Gras is celebrated in coastal Mississippi. But while Mardi Gras is bigger in New Orleans, which has an estimated $1-billion annual impact from Mardi Gras, the Coast’s safer, more laid-back celebrations are gaining more and more converts.

Richer’s job is to drum up more tourism visits to the Gulf Coast. So he loves to see the Mississippi Gulf Coast get good publicity in major media markets. Mardi Gras is one of his best opportunities. He was especially pleased this year with an article featured on the cover of the travel section of the New York Post on Feb. 18.

“The writer said if you want to have fun this time of year, either go to Carnival in Brazil or Mardi Gras in Mississippi,” Richer said.

Richer particularly liked the line in the article where the writer David Landsel said, “If you’re headed for New Orleans this year, and Fat Tuesday turns into “Did I Really Do That Last Night?” Wednesday, do penance in the Magnolia State. Or skip the madness altogether and celebrate over the state line.”

Another favorite clipping of Richer’s is a large spread on Mississippi Mardi Gras that ran a while back in Southern Living. The article said the beads thrown from floats in Mississippi are better than those you’ll get in New Orleans, and you don’t have to “bare” to get them. That quote referred to the more raucous Mardi Gras parades where women are encouraged to lift their shirts in return for beads.

“Mardi Gras is one of the major draws to come down here,” Richer said. “It continues to contribute to the positive reputation of the Coast because of the family quality of the celebration and the excitement of it. It just shows this is a place where you can have fun. That’s the reputation we want.”

“We think that we have a family-oriented Mardi Gras,” says Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway, whose city of 55,000 hosts crowds of 100,000 at parades on Fat Tuesday. “It’s a big deal for the City of Biloxi. You see people with their children. The excessive drinking and revelry is very, very rare the past several years. We haven’t had any big problems. What we have done to take care of a lot of it is the whole parade route is barricaded.”

The Mardi Gras season lasts far longer than just the week of Mardi Gras. It starts in early January with parties, and the first parade is in mid-January. There are about a dozen carnival krewes that put on lavish balls in addition to the parades that Mardi Gras is famous for.

This year there was discussion of canceling Mardi Gras due to the threat of terrorism and concerns the country might go to war with Iraq. Mayor Holloway said the National Guard unit that normally provides vehicles to pull many of the floats was called up, making it necessary to make other arrangements. And the Biloxi police force lost seven of its members to Guard and Reserve activation. Other police and sheriff’s departments on the Coast have also been impacted by activations. Normally the cities and county help each other out patrolling the parades.

But staffing shortages and threats of terrorism couldn’t cancel Mardi Gras. It is too firm a tradition on the Gulf Coast.

Holloway said the economic impact of Mardi Gras may be hard to pinpoint exactly. But it is significant.

“All of the hotels are full, so that tells you something,” Holloway said. “If someone is staying at a hotel you can figure they will spend $200 per day. Mardi Gras overall is a tremendous impact, buying presents, buying beads, eats, drinks and costumes. The bigger krewes spend anywhere from $12,000 to $75,000 to $80,000. There are a lot of dinners and parties. Kings, queens, maids and dukes can spend thousands on their costumes and gifts. There is a big economic impact. A lot of people come into town who are friends of people in the court. It is very colorful, and an enduring tradition here in the City of Biloxi. It has a long tradition.”

Jolie Spiers, media relations’ manager for Mississippi Gulf Coast CVB, said one of the Coast’s largest events draws people for weeks before Fat Tuesday.

“Because it spans such a long period of time in so many different destinations, it is not an event that is specific to Biloxi, Gulfport or Bay St. Louis,” Spiers said. “Every city along the Gulf Coast has its own celebration. So in that sense it is hard to get a specific visitor count or dollar amount. But it is obvious due to the magnitude of this event that we reap a significant economic impact in visitation.”

Spiers said what people really enjoy about Mardi Gras in Mississippi is the family atmosphere and the accessibility. The crowds at parades aren’t so large and intimidating as found in New Orleans, and there are plenty of beads and other “throws” to go around.

“Locals have made it extremely friendly and fun not only for people local to the Coast but visitors, as well,” Spiers said. “They come from all over the country to experience our Mardi Gras. It is growing in popularity because of the safety of it, and the fact it is really a big party. People feel comfortable bringing their children here without having to worry about some of the more notorious behavior seen by our neighbors.”

More business might benefit that would be apparent at first blush. For example, the Domino House in Gulfport does a booming business during Mardi Gras providing special Mardi Gras-themed floral arrangements, decorations and gifts. Sunset Photography in D’Iberville provides on-the-spot digital photography prints at Mardi Gras balls on the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans for people who want photos of themselves in their Mardi Gras finery.

Josette’s in Biloxi makes the exceedingly elaborate and expensive costumes for Mardi Gras court royalty while also doing a booming business in less expensive costumes. A number of other costume makers and formal wear rental businesses also stay busy during Mardi Gras.

The Coast Coliseum stays busy with Mardi Gras events. And Paul’s Pastry in Picayune bakes literally thousands of king cakes, including a large number that are shipped out of state.

“There are so many different businesses that benefit from this event— the hotels, the restaurants, pastry makers and gas stations,” Spiers said. “King cakes are very popular. Even the gas stations here sell king cakes. Gift shops and florist shops do well selling items for Mardi Gras balls.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com</a.

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