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Council, Mardi Gras leaders talk event obstacles

By Ken Stickney

ken.stickney@panews.com

Mardi Gras Southeast Texas enthusiasts and the Port Arthur City Council began the hard work of finding ways to keep the annual carnival season event financially viable while respecting the rights of competing, independent vendors who operate in the shadow of the four-day annual event downtown.

“We made some progress,” District 3 Councilman Thomas Kinlaw said after a two-hour Tuesday “workshop” in City Council chambers. “We found some common ground. Hopefully we’ll continue to work together.”

Kinlaw said the council still has time to come up with agreements that would allow Mardi Gras organizers to plan their four-day event, celebrated annually during Carnival season on the weekend before Fat Tuesday. In 2019, that would be Feb. 28-March 3.

Tim Romero, MGSET chairman, and Laura Childress, president, in July pitched the idea of a event “buffer zone” outside Mardi Gras’ gated, paid-entrance area. Independent vendors have been encroaching on the paid-entrance area’s gates, they said, selling their products to ticket purchasers entering the event and financially harming vendors who pay a $950 fee to sell food and merchandise inside the gates.

In August, supporters of independent vendors said the “mom-and-pop” vendors would be “marginalized” by a buffer zone that excluded them. Council members suggested the workshop to seek a middle course fair to all.

MGSET’s concerns followed a financially disastrous, weather-affected 2018 Mardi Gras celebration that cost the organization more than $100,000 in losses.

Among points that the City Council weighed Tuesday were spacing of independent vendors, low city fees that independent vendors pay to operate at Mardi Gras, a requirement that MGSET keep a fire truck inside the gates and the number of police officers that MGSET must hire to police the area.

Romero and Childress contend that the city imposes restrictions on Mardi Gras organizers that they don’t on organizers of other events. That seemed to make an impact on council members, who said they would seek an “even” playing field for all.

Also points of contention included that independent vendors may be setting up shop around Mardi Gras without paying city fees, that they are operating on the sidewalks or on the streets, and that the city might not be checking food vendors closely for the full four days after they set up their operations.

District 4 Councilman Harold Doucet insisted that vendors who set up outside the gates must meet city codes for hot water, restrooms and food quality, and that those operating outside the gates must be inspected with the same diligence as those who operate inside the gates.

“Everyone selling food must be inspected the same way, following the same rules,” he said.

But council members seemed to oppose restricting vendors from operating altogether near the gates, or from operating on their own properties around the fenced areas.

MGSET leaders said surveys show that almost half of those attending Mardi Gras come from outside the county. And, they added, the event generates substantial sales tax revenue for the city.

Tammy Kotzur, executive director of Port Arthur Convention & Visitors Bureau, said Mardi Gras generates positive stories for the community, makes an economic impact on the city and generates lots of interest on social media.

Following the meeting, she said the workshop appeared to be successful because all of those affected were able to express their concerns in full, unlike at City Council meetings where speakers are limited to just few minutes.