• 48°

Vendors speaking up: Council weighs comments on Mardi Gras ‘event zone’

A local businessman’s plea to keep vendors at the gates of Mardi Gras of Southeast Texas’ downtown celebration seemed to meet a skeptical response from the Port Arthur City Council.

Hilton Kelley spoke at the council’s regular meeting Tuesday at City Hall, following a July 31 request by Mardi Gras of Southeast Texas to impose an “event zone” that would provide a buffer between the four-day, downtown gated event and vendors who sell food and merchandise just outside.

MGSETX leaders contended at the earlier meeting that the vendors outside the gates don’t pay the same fees required of vendors inside, giving them a competitive advantage. They suggested then that activities inside the gates are safer because of increased police presence and that the food is safer because of inspections.

MGSETX also said that vendors’ fees help their non-profit organization earn money, most of which goes to 16 charitable agencies that sponsor it. Keeping the vendors away from the crowds that Mardi Gras Southeast Texas generates would help perpetuate the downtown event, they said.

Kelley, in turn, said the gates “marginalize” people who can’t afford what he said are “outrageous” prices inside the event and said there should be no barriers to participation by Port Arthur residents and no fees.

A buffer zone, he said, would push “mom and pop” vendors farther away from the crowds, imperiling their operations. He called the request for a buffer zone “shameful.”

Kelley at one point drew the ire of Mayor Derrick Freeman, who told Kelley to not make comments during the presentations by others. Freeman sent the “sergeant at arms,” Acting Police Chief John Owens, to where Kelley was seated at the front of the chambers, where Owens delivered to him a copy of the rules of decorum for the public meeting.

William P. Wells, who said he’s been an “outside vendor” for 22 years, said he can’t afford to pay the fee — $950, payable early, he said — to MGSETX to operate inside the fence but said he pays taxes.

“I don’t know how much more I have to pay,” he said.

District 4 Councilman Harold Doucet said the council is seeking “a happy medium” on the issue.

“The council has not decided on this,” he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Thomas Kinlaw said the council still must hold a workshop, seek advice from nearby property owners and from Lamar State College Port Arthur.

The Mardi Gras group said in a statement issued Tuesday afternoon that “some of the information presented was based on a misunderstanding of Mardi Gras’s intent in asking for the event zone and the amount of financial resources required to operate a successful event.”

In his presentation, Kelley suggested Mardi Gras of Southeast Texas scholarships don’t go to Port Arthur students, but MGSETX said in their written response that the private charitable organizations, including krewes, donate to numerous causes that serve the Port Arthur poor, including Blue Santa, Southeast Texas Food Bank and the Hospitality Center.

“We appreciate the open mindedness that the Port Arthur City Council has displayed and we look forward to the workshop,” the organization said. “It is our intention to be open minded as well as we chart the policies which will benefit both Port Arthur and Mardi Gras and ensure the future sustainability of MGSETX.”