It was Michael Krafft, of the Cowbellian de Rakin Society, who could be credited with the first ever Carnival-related purchase. The same year Mobile’s first Mardi Gras mystic organization paraded, Krafft and a compatriot paid the city’s mayor a visit.
“After the parade the mayor invited them over and he bought them food and drink,” Executive Director of Finance and acting Chief of Staff Paul Wesch said. “So, that was probably the first economic impact.”
There’s no question that Mardi Gras, with its garish events and colorful parades, has a positive impact on city finances each year, but the weeks-long prelude to Ash Wednesday also has cultural significance that cannot be understated.
“It does define us and it enhances our public image,” Wesch said. “So, I think if Mardi Gras did not produce a dollar, it would still be important that Mobile provide the home for Mardi Gras because it’s so important to us.”
The cultural and economic impact of the Carnival season will have to be evaluated as the Mobile City Council weighs two options Mayor Sandy Stimpson has presented to them for redevelopment of the Civic Center site.
One plan, from Stirling Properties, proposes to replace the old Civic Center arena, where a number of societies hold balls, with a brand new, multi-purpose facility similar in scope to the current building. The Stirling plan requires a city buy-in to the tune of $66 million, or about $8 million in debt service per year, and surrounds the arena concept with a number of residential buildings.
Another plan, proposed by The Cordish Companies, scraps the arena in favor of an open-air concept surrounded by retail, restaurant and office space. The area is large enough to facilitate a large group of people, the city’s real estate consultants have argued. It’s also unclear the level of financial support Cordish will ask the city to provide.
In 2015, one of two years recently where Mardi Gras parades have taken place all in one month, making it easier to gauge impact, the events boosted overall sales tax numbers by almost $2 million, according to information provided by the city’s finance department.
In fact, when comparing March 2015 to other months, the roughly $11.6 million in sales tax revenue generated within the city limits is second only to January of that same year, which saw $13.8 million generated because of the Christmas holiday. Sales tax collections are a month behind.
While those numbers reflect increased sales during February 2015, Wesch said the financial impact of Mardi Gras goes on throughout the year.
“Now, that being said, is that all that is spent on Mardi Gras? No,” Wesch said. “We spend probably millions of dollars year round on Mardi Gras; building floats and hiring people to do all sorts of things for our organizations, designing and constructing costumes or what have you.”
At the same time, parades require city expenses, such as overtime for workers in the police and fire departments, as well as public works.
The overall price of overtime for city workers during Mardi Gras in 2015 was about $1.2 million, according to the numbers provided by the city. The city routinely spends about $500,000 per month on overtime, which means that Carnival season adds about a $700,000 expense to the city.
The city also sees a financial benefit from lodging taxes during the season, Wesch said. The numbers from 2015 show a huge increase in lodging tax revenue for February and March of that year. While the other months in 2015 had under $600,000 in lodging tax revenue per month, February and March revenues were about $634,000 and $744,000 respectively, according to city numbers.
David Clark, president and CEO of Visit Mobile, said Mardi Gras definitely leaves a mark when it comes to tourism.
“What we know is Mardi Gras sells out a lot of the downtown hotel and beltline hotels on the weekends,” he said. “Those hotels wouldn’t sell out otherwise.”
The events also mean tourists will come into the city and spend money at stores and restaurants during a time of year they wouldn’t otherwise.
“During those two weeks this year, we had 1 million visitors,” Clark said.
While the financial and tourism aspects are important, Mobile Carnival Museum Executive Director Judi Gulledge said Mardi Gras has simply become part of the city’s cultural fabric.
“For many, many people Carnival is a season,” she said. “It’s just like a major holiday, where people go to events or decorate their homes with wreaths and trees.”
While it has been some of the mystic societies that have been most vocal about the Civic Center’s future, the season itself reaches beyond that, Gulledge said, to the folks who might only go to the parades.
For many musicians, costume designers, hairdressers and others, she said, it’s not just part of a financial livelihood, but a cultural livelihood as well.
“All of your folks who work directly or indirectly during Mardi Gras might make a living, but it’s also cultural,” she said. “It’s very much a part of people’s life that they plan for, regardless of whether they’re in a society or not.”
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