Older ladies from the community will spend days hand-crafting yellow referee flags as throws. Police will gather and donate their time to ensure safety. Town staff and jail inmates will spend the following morning clearing the streets of trash, donated portable toilets and barricades.
It takes a village to put on a Mardi Gras parade in the small town of Sunset, 25 minutes north of Lafayette.
The town’s celebration has somewhat of a complicated history, having shut down more than a decade ago when a reveler was shot and killed at an after-party. According to current parade organizer Dori Janise, the community was scared and let planning fall by the wayside until she picked it back up four years ago.
“The town needed the smiles, they needed encouragement and they needed to unite and have fun,” Janise said.
Sunset, with a population around 3,000, isn’t alone in the plight to keep Mardi Gras celebrations alive in small towns. The tinier communities have suffered through shrinking krewes, a small number of parade entries and the loss of visitors to flashier displays in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette. There are costs to factor in like insurance, the closing of businesses along the parade route and coordinating with town officials to handle emergency services.
But people cannot experience the small-town charm or wave at the local high school’s marching band from the chaotic stands in New Orleans, and that’s what organizers and experts hope they can capitalize on.
St. Martinville shut down its parade several years ago due to economic and safety concerns, but has brought back the celebration in recent years to provide a hometown community event. Where once there were at least three Mardi Gras parades in St. Bernard Parish, now there stands only one that survived the throes and financial woes after Hurricane Katrina.
Mardi Gras economics can be a difficult subject to debate, especially in rural areas where there may be more pressing financial issues, but LSU economics and policy research group director Stephen Barnes puts importance on the immeasurable like crafting a community’s identity.
“There are certainly some towns that have very unique Mardi Gras celebrations … and those celebrations can be a little piece of their identity so they may naturally want to do them even if the costs make it more difficult over time,” Barnes said. “I think in one regard it’s part of helping those communities maintain that sense of cohesion and community."
Also worth considering, he said, is the price of losing potential business as locals travel outside of the city to celebrate Mardi Gras if there is no longer a local option.
Krewe of Comogo president Chris Daigle said the Plaquemine parade, which usually rolls on the Sunday before Mardi Gras but was moved to Lundi Gras because of the weather, takes significant work, community buy-in and corporate sponsorship to fund, but it’s seen growth from 11 to 22 floats in the parade’s five years of existence.
He said partnerships, like those with the city police and sheriff covering the cost of law enforcement overtime and the parish donating portable toilets and other aid, help to offset costs. The krewe also has a unique funding source in that it owns all the floats and runs a throw store from its warehouse for riders to buy locally instead of driving to a surrounding city.
“It’s very hard to do with just memberships, so we rely a lot on local businesses in Iberville Parish as well as some in West Baton Rouge. … They know the importance of the parade and how it brings in such a large crowd for this event,” Daigle said.
New Roads’ celebration, one of the oldest in the state and one of the few still rolling outside of New Orleans on Tuesday, was one Barnes pegged as having successfully whittled out its identity and marketed itself as an attraction for surrounding areas.
“Folks always compliment how much we invest into it,” New Roads historian and parade organizer Brian Costello said. “Of course there are costs to the city and parish and law enforcement but because it’s for community and charity it’s worth it. In communities where it’s a nuisance and it ties up the whole town for a day I could see where the officials there would want to curtail it or abolish it, but here it’s doing well.”
Billy Showalter, with the Knights of Nemesis in St. Bernard Parish, said his krewe and many others — particularly those outside major cities — have spread out their parade schedules so as not to compete with one another. He said this year’s parade attendance was strong when itrolled Feb. 23, but they were down roughly 20 riders as the dynamic shifts to spectating instead of riding.
“Our biggest difference is now we’re parading on the first weekend compared to the next one, small towns can’t compete with those big, big parades and the second weekend is always the biggest for them,” he said. “We’ve been very fortunate and our reputation’s pretty good, but we’ve always rolled on a weekend instead of Tuesday.”
Showalter said he remembers the first year the krewe paraded — in 2006 — when the community was boiling crawfish inside of gutted homes for revelers as they waved to parading local leaders like the District Attorney, who’s had a regular float in the parade ever since.
“You can’t comprehend what we went through to put a parade on after the storm … but we’re a strong community, and we showed that,” he said.
Janise, the Sunset parade organizer, echoed that sentiment, saying it’s the community’s resilience and togetherness that goes on display more than intricate floats or elaborate throws.
“it’s hard to grow a Mardi Gras parade once it has died down but the community does want it and has supported it,” she said. “It’s a united effort and everybody needs everybody else’s help. People are making their floats now and entering them and it’s catching on.”
Barnes said not just as it relates to carnival, but across society, people want a personalized experience. It’s evident in platforms like Netflix and music streaming services, and is no different in the search for Mardi Gras parades to attend. Those that can cater to a niche or provide a certain type of experience will continue success, in his research.
What it boils down to for small towns, he said, is building a strong community, and measuring the trade-off in parade cost as compared to benefits such as surge in outsiders spending money to eat, drink and stay in more rural towns.
“There is absolutely still a place for small-town parades, but they will want to be strategic and consider the kinds of events that are happening in nearby towns, analyzing what about their own Mardi Gras traditions might be a little different than other parts of the state,” he said. “If they can figure out how to market their parade and their event as something unique and special, perhaps they’ll draw their own crowd of people from the bigger markets, too.”