Party Nazis

Has Mardi Gras become a tool of mega-buck sponsors? That's what state and federal authorities are asking.

On a cool Monday evening last month several dozen Soulard tavern owners marched into Joanie's Pizzeria for a meeting hosted by Mardi Gras Inc., the non-profit corporation charged with organizing St. Louis' pre-Lenten bash.

With animosity between the two groups at an all-time high, those in attendance that night say it wasn't long before the meeting split into two contentious camps. On one side of the room: Mardi Gras Inc. and its supporters, representing several of Soulard's best-known bars and businesses. On the other: a growing number of detractors who charge that Mardi Gras Inc. — and several nonprofits tied to the organization — has overstepped its bounds as a fundraiser and event coordinator. A prime example, they say, is a letter the organization sent out to bar owners a few weeks prior to the November meeting.

The first page of the letter stressed the importance of corporate sponsors in footing the bill for St. Louis' increasingly expensive Mardi Gras celebration, which is said to be second in size only to New Orleans. Page two outlined the fee each bar will be expected to pay Mardi Gras Inc. if it chooses to cooperate in next year's "sponsorship support program." The third page spelled out what they'll pay should they refuse.

Jennifer Silverberg
Mark Andresen

The price variance is dramatic. Should saloon-keepers not adhere to the new sponsorship program this coming year, they'll pay a tenfold increase in fees to sell alcohol outdoors during the 2008 Mardi Gras festival. For the typical Soulard watering hole, that means a price hike from around $1,000 to $10,000. With bars counting on Mardi Gras for as much as 20 percent of their annual revenue, such fees might well spell the difference between a successful year and a middling one.

"I don't know if the letter was a scare tactic or what," says Denny Hammerstone, owner of the eponymous watering hole Hammerstones and one of several disgruntled bar owners in attendance. "But it seemed to come out of the blue. Mardi Gras Inc. is supposed to serve as a neighborhood coalition — not a dictatorship."

At issue during the meeting was defining what, exactly, constituted a violation of the sponsorship plan and how the event coordinators will enforce the rules. In years past Mardi Gras Inc. presented bar owners with photographed evidence of violations, but the role of the organization is not to police bars, says Mardi Gras Inc. executive director Tim Lorson.

"The fact of the matter is that without the support of sponsors, we cannot put on the type of Mardi Gras people have come to expect," says Lorson. "All we're asking is that bar owners use common sense: Don't display banners for non-sponsors, and if you want to sell a competitor's product, just call it 'beer' or 'shots' without advertising the brand."

This coming year more than twenty sponsors are expected to pick up roughly half the $800,000 budget Mardi Gras Inc. has earmarked for the February festival. The organization does not disclose how much individual sponsors contribute to the organization, but two of the corporate heavyweights are Anheuser-Busch and Southern Comfort. It's these sponsors that bar owners most risk offending under the new sponsorship program.

"Does this mean that I'll be fined if I don't take down the neon Heineken sign that's been in my window for eleven years?" asks Hammerstone. "Or if one of my bartenders wears a Jagermeister T-shirt, will I be fined? I don't know. Right now the rules are vague and Mardi Gras Inc. holds all the cards."

But bar owners aren't the only ones questioning the new regulations. Also in attendance at the meeting was at least one investigator with the federal government's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). In recent weeks that agency, working in tandem with the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, has interviewed several Soulard bar owners as part of an investigation looking into the legality of Mardi Gras Inc.'s sponsorship deals.

"We're looking at trade practices concerning several alcohol businesses and whether or not their actions are excluding the participation of other alcohol manufacturers," says Pete Lobdell, supervisor of the state's Alcohol and Tobacco Control. "Additionally, we're looking into whether the participating sponsors may be providing finances beyond the ordinary lines of credit to vendors participating in Mardi Gras."

Though Lobdell declined to discuss specifics that might jeopardize the investigation, he does confirm that Mardi Gras Inc. is near the center of the probe.

"Let's just say they're the middle-man orchestrating all of this," he says. Seated inside his warehouse office in Soulard on a recent afternoon, Mardi Gras Inc. executive director Tim Lorson wears a sweater-vest over a white polo shirt. Behind him two full-time assistants answer phones and file paperwork. Stacked in the corner of the tiny office are several cases of Southern Comfort and sundry bottles of booze left over from last year's festival.

Given the festive nature of his occupation, the 38-year-old Lorson likes to offer a drink to his clients — sponsors, vendors, bar owners and neighborhood residents — when they stop by the office. As for imbibing himself, the Mardi Gras Inc. chief says he rarely has time.

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