Businessman Malcolm White wasn’t thinking about economic impact when he began planning the first ever St. Paddy’s Parade and Festival in Jackson.
Come March 17, the 25th-annual parade will assemble in downtown Jackson at the corner of State and Court streets. The Sweet Potato Queens will start things off at noon. The theme is “Where were you in ‘82 (or was it ‘83)? Celebrating 25 years (or so) of Mal’s St. Paddy’s Parade.”
White, executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, recalled, “The only economic impact I was thinking of about 25 years ago was making a living doing fun stuff. I was interested in creating an event that would make money for the people who were sponsoring the parade (George Street Grocery, C.S’s, Capital City Beverage and WTYX radio), but not much beyond that.”
“About three years into it, the light bulb went off and I realized it was a viable money-making opportunity. I spent a lot of years trying to convince the city and the Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau (JCVB) that it was a growing and important economic and tourism tool, and they mostly wanted me to go away. Even when I went to the trouble and expense of conducting my own economic survey to document my numbers, they ignored them and even refuted the data as ‘not verifiable or unofficial’,” said White.
He said, “After that, I went about my business of making it the biggest and best it could be and many years later they all came around and started praising us and giving us awards and such. I’m happy to have been a part of creating something everyone embraces and takes pride in. Today, we have a strong and close working relationship with the city and the JCVB. They are invaluable partners.”
White had lived in New Orleans for years before coming to Jackson and was “starved” for something to celebrate. “I saw an opportunity to develop something Jackson could identify with and call its own. This isn’t a Mardi Gras culture, but for some reason St. Paddy’s got them excited. Jackson was hungry for a spring celebration, and this was it. I worked hard to keep it local and make it open to everyone who got into the spirit. I used to call it ‘people’s parade,’ and it still is,” he added.
He has several favorite things about the parade such as “the sense of humor, the local color and the spirit of letting our collective hair down for a day in Jackson. The fact that it is a major tourism attraction and raises awareness and money for Batson Hospital for Children is cool. I love having the New Orleans Pin Stripe Brass Bands lead the parade and the O’Tux Society, and then playing down at Hal and Mal’s after the parade in the back room. I love creating a ‘second line’ from the street through the restaurant and on stage for the jam session. I love dancing with hundreds of friends and visitors for hours,” said White.
For the second consecutive year, the parade has been chosen as a Top 20 Event by the Southeast Tourism Society (STS).
White said, “It’s an honor. Of course to us, it’s the top event in the country. I think getting this kind of recognition validates what I was trying to say all along. That was that we had the potential to create something unique, lasting and important and have fun all the way to the bank.”
Mara Hartmann of the JCVB said the honor is significant “not only because it identifies the event as one of the best in the southeastern U.S., but because of all the marketing, public relations and advertising coverage that the parade gets from the Southeast Tourism Society at absolutely no cost.”
“It is somewhat unusual to be selected two years in a row. We have had other attractions selected consecutively in the past, but the STS likes to keep adding new, strong products to the mix to give travelers new options they may not be aware of. So, we are pleased they think enough of this event to give it this prestigious honor again this year,” said Hartmann.
She noted the requirement to nominate an event is that it is at least in its third year and has a projected attendance of at least 1,000. “The aspects judges consider are the unique aspects of the event, the economic impact to the community, community involvement, attendance and other awards the event has won,” said Hartmann.
One big weekend
Hartmann added, “The parade generates a total of $6 million over a three-day weekend, with most of that ($4.9 million) accounted for on the actual day of the parade. That’s 2006 numbers, and we expect to see a continued increase in that with the continued growth of the parade and the local market’s reaction to it. In recent years, with the influx of visitors from around the country, many of our retailers, restaurants/clubs, etc., have become quite savvy in developing creative ways to attract these visitors to their establishments.”
“This year, surrounding clubs will be joining Hal and Mal’s and Fenian’s Irish Pub in offering lots of live entertainment in specials in honor of the St. Paddy’s weekend. In past years, retailers (LeFleur’s Gallery and Fondren’s Business District) have offered enticements designed to appeal to visitors for the parade weekend,” said Hartmann.
Hartmann said the JCVB’s numbers are derived from a formula provided by Destination Marketing Association International, formerly known as the International Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus. “Their formulas are targeted for different regions of the world. We are in the South, so that formula is based on the average cost of a hotel room, gas and restaurant meal in this area of the country, and is presented as a range. We use the lower figure in the range to determine the economic impact of events in our city, so our numbers are conservative. Our number for overnight visitors takes into account the cost of a hotel room, while our day tripper figure does not, so it is lower,” she added.
The parade attracts approximately 50,000 attendees per year and approximately 2,000 out-of-town marchers. Hotel rooms are virtually sold out for the weekend, said Hartmann.
She noted restaurants benefit from the out-of-town visitors, as well.
Hartmann said, “The parade is now the fourth-largest in the nation and we don’t see that changing anytime soon with the continued popularity and release of author Jill Conner Browne’s Sweet Potato Queen books, the word-of-mouth about Jackson and the parade from these visiting ‘wannabees’ and the national/international media attention the parade receives every year.”
The parade is included in a book being released this spring entitled “1,000 Places to See in the U.S. and Canada Before You Die” by Patricia Schultz. Hartmann said the original book by Schultz sold more than two million copies, spent 131 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list, is in its 43rd printing, has 21 foreign editions and is the No. 1 travel bestseller. The latest edition will also feature the Eudora Welty House museum.
About those Queens…
And a major attraction at every parade is Jill Conner Browne and the Sweet Potato Queens. “When I heard that Malcom White was planning the first-ever St. Paddy’s Parade for Jackson, I declared I would be in it — as The Sweet Potato Queen. I had been joking with friends that I thought I was ‘meant’ to be a Queen of some sort — but Queendoms seemed in short supply. Of course, in the South, we do have a Queen for every event, every day of the week practically — so I didn’t think it would be too hard to find my niche,” recalled Browne.
She said, “I declared myself to be The Sweet Potato Queen for that first parade, because I thought it was funny — and still do. There were four of us that year and for the next few years, anybody who would show up in some kind of green ball gown from GoodWill or wherever — with a tiara — who was willing to ride in the back of a pickup truck, smile, wave and throw sweet potatoes could be a Sweet Potato queen. Those were the only requirements then — and there were not as many takers as I would have expected. I was reinventing the wheel every year there for awhile — new folks every year until I came up with those first green sequin outfits — from that day forward, folks have been clamoring to join.”
“I started the Queens purely to amuse myself — and everything we do today, 25 years later, is still to amuse myself. That thousands of other people have found it equally amusing is absolutely fantastic — but I would still do it if nobody else showed up — because it’s still fun to me. We always acted as if there were tens of thousands of people there — so it doesn’t feel any different to us now that there are really tens of thousands of people there — they were always there in our minds,” said Browne.
Browne is happy to be earning a living as the Sweet Potato Queen.
She said, “My dear friend and former boss Frank Mastronardi always told me ‘to do what makes your heart sing and the money will follow.’ That struck a chord with me — but I was 19 and working for him in the credit department at Sears when he told me that — so it didn’t work out for me there. But the first time I rode in that parade — I did say, out loud, somebody will pay me to do this — because it did make me so happy, and here we are — as far as I know, I am the world’s only full-time professional Sweet Potato Queen!”
“That it also benefits my hometown and the businesses of dear friends is too wonderful for words. That Malcom White persisted for so many years with very little support is a testimony to his vision and strength. That the parade has raised so much money for the Blair E. Batson Children’s hospital is the best thing of all,” said Browne.
Browne said she doesn’t know how many members of the Sweet Potato Queens there are. “When they register their chapters, we only track the chapters, not the individual members. But there are 5,200 chapters in 20 countries — including Saudi Arabia — their motto is ‘No Veils For Us!” she added.
It’s been a long time since the queens have thrown out sweet potatoes.Browne said that’s due to the cost more than anything else. “Beads are much more economical. But, in honor of the 25th-anniversary parade, we will be throwing silver sweet potatoes this year. We’ll throw mostly beads, but a few lucky individuals will snag these hand-decorated commemorative taters!” said Browne.