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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 12, 2006

Can Mardi Gras' good times roll?

Associated Press

Float designer Blaine Kern of Kern's Mardi Gras World plans to use this Zululand Ambassador prop in a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade this year.

MARY ANN CHASTAIN | Associated Press

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NEW ORLEANS As in past years, labor attorney Eve Marie Stocker plans to fly from Virginia to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, ride costumed on a float with her mother in the all-female Krewe of Iris parade and catch up with family and friends.

This year, however, she says the mission takes on a serious note: New Orleans, venturing into an uncertain Mardi Gras season after Hurricane Katrina, needs a successful celebration to get its sputtering economy started and give its storm-shocked residents a break.

"Mardi Gras is a compass," said Stocker, a former New Orleans resident. "This is what's normal for the city, and everyone needs a little bit of normalcy."

Mardi Gras, with its frolic and debauchery, is bit of a mystery this year for New Orleans, where an estimated two-thirds of its half-million pre-Katrina populace remains elsewhere. While participants often number more than 1 million, and the typical economic impact is pegged at $1 billion, no one really knows what to expect.

It's tricky for out-of-towners to make plans because hotel rooms remain clogged with storm evacuees and recovery workers, a sharply reduced number of airline seats into New Orleans are in high demand and restaurants are struggling with labor shortages to get back in business.

Any infusion of cash will be welcome in a city that saw most of its tax base washed away by Katrina on Aug. 29 and the ensuing flooding after levees broke. Basic services, such as police protection and firefighting, are being held together with a $120 million federal loan that will provide funding only until spring.

Because of tight money, this year's Mardi Gras has been scaled back, starting on Feb. 18 and culminating on Feb. 28's Fat Tuesday. For the first time in 150 years of Carnival, the city is looking to corporate sponsors.

Stephen Perry, president of the city's visitor bureau, said he's hoping for an economic boost along the lines of a Super Bowl, which brought the city an estimated $400 million in 2002.

"We're expecting not only a lot of out-of-state tourists, but a lot of New Orleans residents to drive in with their families," Perry said. "It may not be the largest, but it will be the most emotional and important of all our Mardi Gras."

Big or not, Mardi Gras will kick off the return of the tourist and convention business to New Orleans. The next big event will be the Jazz & Heritage Festival in late April and early May.