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Festivals bring crowds, recognition and revenue

Festivals abound in Mississippi. They begin in earnest this time of year and run heavily through summer and fall around the state. There’s one to celebrate most any food, music, place or occasion that can be found here.

Cities, counties, schools, churches and other organizations put them on to raise funds, bring business to town or to promote a product. However, as several festival planners told the Mississippi Business Journal, it’s more often to increase awareness of a place and all it has to offer.

Belzoni’s World Catfish Festival is one of the state’s oldest celebrations and marks its 31st-annual event this year on April 1. The festival brought about 20,000 visitors to this Delta town last year and a larger crowd is expected this year.

“That’s what we’re so happy about —we’ve had steady growth every year,” said Paulet Solomon of the Belzoni-Humphreys Development Foundation. “There were not that many festivals when we started ours in 1976 and now there are a lot out there.”

She said the World Catfish Festival has a great support base of sponsors and is supported by local businesses at all levels. “We have no trouble getting sponsors. It means a lot to the area,” she said. “We don’t have data on the amount of money it brings here, but it’s the biggest thing that happens every year.”

There was no question that catfish was the perfect choice for a festival theme with Humphreys County proclaiming itself the “Catfish Capital of the World.” Solomon says the tasty pond-raised fish is the area’s life blood and has a big base of support from the catfish industry including Freshwater Farms, Simmons Catfish and Country Select Catfish. Other major sponsors include Supervalu, Guaranty Bank & Trust, BankPlus, Coca Cola and local radio and television outlets.

West Point isn’t usually associated with the blues but the black prairie town is the site of the Howlin’ Wolf Memorial Blues Festival each Labor Day weekend. This year’s 11th festival will be held September 1 at the West Point Civic Center in conjunction with the outdoor Prairie Arts Festival.

As an indoor event, the blues fest is limited to 1,000 sought-after tickets that go on sale the end of July. It’s all to honor blues guitarist Howlin’ Wolf, who was born just outside the city limits in 1910 and lived there until the age of 13. Richard Ramsey is program director of the Howlin’ Wolf Blues Society, the group that puts on the festival.

“The festival was not started for business reasons. It was started to honor one of the most powerful and influential bluesmen of all times,” Ramsey said. “We put the money back into the community to promote and keep the blues heritage alive in Mississippi and pay for the festival.”

That promotion includes a local Howlin’ Wolf Museum and eight-foot granite statue along West Point’s memorial parkway. Posters and t-shirts are also sold at the festival. Local industry Sara Lee, which absorbed home grown Bryan Foods a few years ago, is a corporate sponsor. All area banks, Comcast Cable Vision and Two Brothers Barbecue are sponsors too.

But, Ramsey says the growing festival needs more sponsors and a grant to provide signage for the museum and to promote the festival. “It takes a lot of effort and we’re growing,” he said. “People come from all over the world to attend the blues festival and about 35,000 attend the arts festival. All the businesses here should profit from it.”

Blues artists perform at the festival each year and members of Howlin’ Wolf’s family come down from Chicago to participate. Ramsey says the festival has been taped by the British Broadcasting Company and has interest all over the world.

“There will never be another Howlin’ Wolf. He was a premiere blues artist who influenced artists such as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Carlos Santana,” Ramsey said. “We’re here with blues but it takes time for people to know about us.”

There’s no such problem associating Tupelo with Elvis Presley where the king of rock and roll was born. The Tupelo Convention & Visitors Bureau and Main Street Association are holding the eighth Annual Elvis Presley Festival. This year’s event marks the 50th anniversary of the entertainer’s 1956 homecoming and the famous concert held on the grounds of the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. Tickets go on sale May 1 for the June 2-4 festivities.

Jim High, assistant director of Main Street, predicts that about 10,000 people will attend the various events throughout the festival weekend. “We expect more this year because of the 50th anniversary of Elvis’ homecoming concert,” he said. “We will re-create that event with video clips and three artists who portray Elvis. Elvis was so big it takes three people to portray him.”

Representatives from Elvis Presley Enterprises in Memphis will be on hand with a hospitality tent.
High said the festival fills up the area’s 1,600 hotel rooms each year and has visitors eating in local restaurants and shopping with local merchants. The festival’s budget is $200,000 with about $100,000 raised through sponsorships that include many local businesses.

“We couldn’t do it without our sponsors. Ticket sales do not cover the budget,” he said. “We haven’t run any kind of economic analysis; it’s difficult to do that. The big benefit besides the economic value to a community is that festivals of any kind bring a community together. It’s part of the quality of life and enriches that quality.”

In Vicksburg on the Mississippi River having a Riverfest also seems like a natural. The city will hold its 19th-annual event April 21-22 in the downtown Washington Street area. Music covering four genres and a huge arts and crafts show are expected to bring more than 25,000 people out to celebrate spring.

“We started it because Vicksburg needed something to bring it together,” said Josie Moody of the Riverfest board of directors. “We’ve had several sponsoring groups over the years. The casinos are big sponsors and that has made a tremendous difference. We are able to have more music and more attractions.”

She said that although the festival has no hard figures, the event fills up area hotel rooms and brings visitors to shop with downtown merchants.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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