Herman Mhire vividly remembers returning home to Lafayette in August 1985 after spending a summer abroad.

The university where he worked was between semesters. The economy had tanked as the price of oil dropped, shutting down businesses and sending families packing. The city so known for its cultural identity felt dead and disconnected from the rest of the world. And the heavy Louisiana humidity certainly didn't help anything.

"It's immediate," Mhire said. "The contrast, the disconnect; you sense it immediately after being away for several months and coming back here. I felt like I had returned to a kind of vacuum. I felt like there was so much excitement and variety in terms of cultural expression all over the world, and yet there was no way to experience that locally."

And with that, the idea for Festival International de Louisiane was born.

Mhire pitched the concept — an annual visual and performing arts festival — to local francophone leaders Philippe Gustin and Jean Goyer. They soon looped in local leaders Cathy Weber, Gerald Breaux, Donnie Robin, Walter Comeaux and Tom Boozer.

During the summer of 1986, founding members of the festival attended three festivals in Quebec and met with their organizers with the intention of learning how to organize and host a successful international festival. They returned energized and inspired. They formed a nonprofit organization so they could begin planning the event.

Although a few received the idea with hesitation, most welcomed anything that might help to pull Lafayette out of its economic and emotional slump. A free festival in an urban setting seemed like the perfect thing to do just that.

"Ideas have a greater chance of success if other necessary ingredients happen to be in place," Mhire said. "And at that time, there was a convergence of so many elements: that depressed economy, the right local leaders in city and parish government, interest in downtown development and regional development, the concept of cultural tourism as a tool for economic development.

"I think this idea was born at an opportune time. It was like a missing puzzle piece. People were looking for something, and this idea emerged."

At a time when the city's future looked grim, Lafayette embraced the concept and what it could mean for its identity. 

"There are still many Louisiana residents, indeed Lafayette residents, who are not quite aware of the magnitude of what is about to happen here next month," Arden Allen Dufilho wrote in a June 1987 edition of The Daily Advertiser. 

About 100,000 people showed up to see 1,000 artists from across the world at the first Festival International de Louisiane in downtown Lafayette on July 2-5, 1987.

"What does this mean for our city and how we can capitalize on it?" Richard Baudouin wrote in The Times of Acadiana days after the inaugural festival. "(W)e can simply enjoy it, take pride in it, feel nurtured by it. Our international links can be a source of identity for Lafayette in the future, much as our relationship to the oil industry was the defining factor for this city in decades past."

The biggest problem with the first festival was the oppressive Louisiana heat.

Locals and visitors could hardly handle the humidity, let alone musicians and performers, some of which were dressed in wool and other heavy materials native to their countries.

Organizers decided to host the second festival in April, and it's happened annually the last weekend of the month since.

Today, Festival International draws about 300,000 to 400,000 people over five days and has an estimated economic impact of $49 million per year.

The production has become more sophisticated with improved stages, sound systems, lighting and overall infrastructure. There are more ways to experience music, arts, food and culture. There are more ways to support it.

But the festival hasn't changed dramatically from its original concept. 

It's been a free event boasting international, largely French-speaking, talent on multiple stages over multiple days from the start. 

"The entire community embraced it," Mhire said. "And that support has never wavered. Here we are 33 years later. Not only is the festival generating tremendous economic impact for our community, but it's really placed Lafayette on an international map."

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Follow Megan Wyatt on Twitter, @MeganWyattACA.