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Since joining Mardi Gras Inc. in July 2003, Lorson has brought the organization's budget up from less than $300,000 to $800,000, with much of that money coming from sponsorship dollars.
Two years ago the St. Louis Regional Commerce and Growth Association pegged Mardi Gras as an economic engine worth $21 million to St. Louis. Lorson is determined to boost those numbers by emphasizing events such as the Crystal (Hot Sauce) Cajun Cook-Off, the Southern Comfort Taste of Soulard and the Beggin' Strips Barkus Pet Parade, which take place in the weeks prior to the Grand Parade and Fat Tuesday.
Lorson is aware of the government investigation into his organization's sponsorship deals but says he has not been contacted by authorities. He adds that the organization's attorney has reviewed the sponsorship plan and believes it contains no legal snares. As for the complaints by bar owners that the sponsorship regulations threaten their businesses, Lorson says nothing could be further from the truth.
Participation fees from taverns add up to less than $40,000, or roughly one-tenth of what sponsors kick into covering the costs of the party, says Lorson. It's bar owners, he maintains, who benefit most from the influx of funds and marketing made available through corporate endorsements.
"I explain it like this," says the Mardi Gras Inc. director. "We provide the bars with the bucket, the water and the fish. It's up to them to shoot as many as they can."
Lorson adds that the fines imposed on bars that fail to comply with the sponsorship agreement are nothing new. For the past three years, Mardi Gras Inc. has levied double fees upon those who advertised non-sponsors during Mardi Gras. This year's increase of ten times the normal fees, says Lorson, comes as a "wake-up call" after perennial violations in which bar owners displayed banners for non-sponsors.
"What we have here is a small mutiny of bar owners who feel they're being strong-armed by Mardi Gras Inc.," says Johnny Daus, owner of Johnny's Restaurant and Bar. "But I think they've been given ample opportunity over the last few years to jump onto the sponsorship program."
Daus, who also serves as president of the Soulard Business Association, adds that the crux of the problem lies behind the scenes in what he calls a "pissing match" between alcohol sponsors. For years Captain Morgan served as the official liquor sponsor of Mardi Gras, before relinquishing the sponsorship to Southern Comfort in 2004. Daus now surmises that Captain Morgan is using the money it once spent on Mardi Gras Inc. to fund promotions with individual bars. (Representatives for Captain Morgan and Southern Comfort did not return calls for comment for this article.)
"People tell me the ATF [the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] is looking at Mardi Gras Inc. and Southern Comfort," says Daus. "But I say the sponsors aren't who they should be looking at. If anyone is doing anything illegal, it's the non-sponsors. They're starting all this B.S."
Nadine Soaib, owner of Nadine's Gin Joint at 12th and Allen streets, admits she fell sway to the Captain last year after feeling snubbed by the official sponsor. "Southern Comfort never even approached me," says Soaib. "When Captain Morgan showed up, I said 'OK.' I wasn't the only one. Our whole block was slapped with Captain Morgan banners."
As a result of the infraction, Soaib saw her participation fee for the 2007 Mardi Gras increase by $600. "Did I throw a fit? You bet I did. But I broke the rules, and Mardi Gras Inc. had the photos to prove it. What was I to do?"
Other bar owners aren't as complacent and charge Mardi Gras Inc. with selling out to commercial interests. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of southern Louisiana last fall, New Orleans signed its first-ever sponsorship in that city's long history of hosting Mardi Gras. The contract with trash-bag manufacturer Glad paid for much of the event's cleanup.
The glut of corporate dollars in St. Louis, say bar owners, has only served to create a bastardized version of the true Mardi Gras. Case in point, they say, is the signature drink of Mardi Gras the Hurricane. Traditionally made of rum, the Hurricane most often advertised in Soulard in recent years uses sponsor Southern Comfort (a whiskey liqueur) as its base ingredient.
"Who the hell ever heard of making a Hurricane with whiskey?" grouses a Soulard bar owner who, like many interviewed for this story, asked not to be named for fear of retribution from Mardi Gras Inc. "It's made with rum. Not whiskey. But then, you can't win with these people. A Hurricane is whatever they say it is."
Bob Brinkman is the last living member of Soulard's original Mardi Gras krewe. A 70-year-old resident of south St. Louis County, Brinkman recalls the cold December night in 1979 when he and four friends huddled around a downtown bar discussing their plans for a party.
"It was colder than a witch's tit," remembers Brinkman. "The five of us decided that we needed something to pull us through the bleak months ahead. Hilary Clement suggested a Mardi Gras party at his house in Soulard. It pretty much took off from there."