Party Nazis

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

With a budget of $1,250 ($250 collected from each of the five organizers) the men hosted their first Mardi Gras in February 1980. The festivities culminated at midnight when all 200-plus guests marched from Clement's house on Russell Boulevard (now home to Johnny's Bar & Restaurant) to John D. McGurk's Irish Pub, accompanied by trombones and horns.

"It was so cold the instruments froze to the musicians' lips," recalls Brinkman. "The next year we had the same party. When we walked outside for the midnight march, there were 2,500 people in the street waiting to join us."

By the early 1990s Soulard's Mardi Gras had grown large enough that it required year-round planning. Ann Chance, who served as volunteer director of the event from 1992 to 1999, says the goal of the party was to build business in Soulard, which had undergone a radical gentrification since that first Mardi Gras.

Still, it wasn't until 1997 that Mardi Gras — buoyed by unseasonably warm weather that year — attracted for the first time the hundreds of thousands of revelers that have become commonplace in recent years. The burgeoning crowds created a windfall for tavern owners and, all too often, headaches for residents who complained about property damage, public urination and litter.

In 1999 a near-riot broke out when police fired tear gas into crowds attending the Fat Tuesday Parade. The mayor's office and city aldermen responded to the melee by demanding that the festival form a third-party organizer. Mardi Gras Inc. was established to bring order to the drunken chaos.

Composed of a board headed by Soulard business owners and neighborhood associations, Mardi Gras Inc. hired a full-time executive director and established a budget of around a quarter-million dollars. Under Lorson's guidance, that budget has increased threefold. Lorson says the additional funds are necessary to cover the rising costs of throwing the party, including paying for some 800 portable toilets ($40,000) and several miles of parade barricades ($30,000). Lorson's salary accounts for approximately $70,000 of the budget.

But increased sponsorships aren't the only revenue fueling Mardi Gras Inc.'s expanding budget. So, too, are beer and alcohol sales generated through a subsidiary nonprofit called the Mardi Gras Foundation. That organization was formed in 2003 for the purpose of raising money for Soulard community projects and serving as an additional fundraiser for Mardi Gras Inc.

The foundation, whose officers include St. Louis Democratic Committee Chairman Brian Wahby and City Hall lobbyist Lou Hamilton, hosts the annual Mayor's Ball that kicks off Mardi Gras. It also organizes the nonprofit and charitable organizations that staff more than a dozen beer and alcohol booths working the streets of Soulard during Mardi Gras.

In 2004 the Mardi Gras Foundation took in more than $400,000, according to its most recent financials. More than half of that revenue — $242,000 — came from alcohol sales during the Saturday of the Grand Parade, with the foundation taking a 65 percent cut of all vendor sales. The charities working the booths earn the remaining proceeds. Last year the foundation doled out $20,000 of its proceeds to Soulard community projects. A far greater amount — as much as $75,000 — went to fund Mardi Gras Inc.

Brian Wahby, volunteer president of the Mardi Gras Foundation, says he hopes that in the future Mardi Gras Inc. will not need the proceeds from the alcohol sales. Until then, the foundation is there to ensure the parent organization meets its budget, especially when factors such as the weather and poor ticket sales can negatively affect revenues for Mardi Gras Inc.

Soulard bar owners, meanwhile, argue that the nonprofit alcohol vendors employed by the foundation work in direct competition with their businesses during the festival. Moreover, the vendor program has also attracted the attention of authorities. Peter Lobdell of the state's Alcohol and Tobacco Control confirms his agency's investigation extends into how Mardi Gras Inc. raises money through the sale of alcohol, as well as how it issues permits to the outside vendors. In order to sell alcohol on the streets, the nonprofit vendors must apply for a liquor license through the city's excise division — but it's Mardi Gras Inc. and the Mardi Gras Foundation that determine which vendors will be forwarded to the city for approval.

St. Louis Excise Commissioner Bob Kraiberg, for the record, says he's unaware of any problems with Mardi Gras' vendor program and notes that events such as Fair St. Louis and Laclede Landing's Big Muddy Festival operate in much the same manner.

Equally puzzling to bar owners is yet another Mardi Gras Inc. subsidiary that sprang up last year. Mardi Gras Forever, according to filings with the Secretary of State's office, was formed to "organize, sponsor, manage, administer, plan, coordinate and raise money for a public event called St. Louis Soulard Mardi Gras."

The organization is headed by Tim Lorson's younger brother, Kevin Lorson, who works as a Soulard bar manager. Mardi Gras Forever has yet to file its financial records, but Tim Lorson insists that his brother's position is unpaid. The organization, says Tim Lorson, works primarily to raise funds for neighborhood-improvement projects. It recently donated $30,000 to build a wrought-iron fence around the park next to the Soulard Market.

But such generosity fails to resonate with Denny Hammerstone and other Soulard bar owners, many of whom are left scratching their heads at the various roles Mardi Gras Inc. and its subsidiaries play in hosting the festival.

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