GALVESTON — Mardi Gras revelers will have to pay $17 to get onto The Strand this year, continuing the policy that has been in effect since the event was taken over by a private business in 2011.
The price, according to event organizers, is the cost of putting on Galveston’s largest event. But there are some who say the event should be free to access.
Ticket prices were the same in 2012, said Mike Dean, the owner of Yaga’s Entertainment, the promoter that has been in charge of Galveston’s Mardi Gras celebrations for three years. And he’s standing by charging for the event, which attracted up to 250,000 to the island in recent years.
“A free Mardi Gras is a situation that does not do good for anybody,” Dean said.
Galveston’s Mardi Gras begins Feb. 1 and ends on Feb. 13. Admittance to the Uptown Entertainment District — which includes The Strand and Mechanic Street between 20th and 25th streets — will be limited to ticket buyers on both Fridays and Saturdays during Mardi Gras.
Galveston entered into a three-year promoter agreement with Yaga’s Entertainment beginning in 2011. The agreement also has a two-year option. Yaga’s will pay the city $100,000 this year for the event fee. In exchange for the lump sum, the city agreed not to charge Yaga’s any fees “of any kind whatsoever” in relation to Mardi Gras events.
The city last year decided to extend its agreement with Yaga’s for two more years until 2015, with each year bringing in an additional $100,000 from event fees.
“We get $100,000 whether it’s rain or snow or sunshine,” Assistant City Manager Brian Maxwell said.
Maxwell said Mardi Gras is the only special event the city subsidizes.
Events on The Strand were free to the public between 2008 and 2010, but before that the city did charge an entrance fee.
Dean said that, along with funding the entertainment provided by Mardi Gras, selling tickets acts as a sort of security measure against troublemakers who visit during the island’s biggest party.
But at least one Strand business owner said the return the Mardi Gras tickets has hurt her business and is trying to make a stand over it.
Diane Cowart is the owner of Crow’s Southwest Cantina, a bar at the far west end of The Strand. Cowart has been a vocal critic of charging for the event and is circulating a petition objecting to the “ongoing obstruction of business commerce” caused by charging an entrance fee.
An online version of the petition, which has been online for about a week, has 17 signatures.
“It eliminates the downtown merchants from making a living,” Cowart said. “It’s a free venue up on the seawall, and we would like it to be the same down here on The Strand area.”
There are six parades scheduled on the seawall this year. Another 18 parades are scheduled to go on downtown, along with dozens of concerts and other events.
Cowart said the ticket prices adversely affect her business during the two weekends of Mardi Gras. She also said the gates make it difficult for Strand business employees and hired musical acts to get to where they need to be.
Cowart did not answer a question about how much business she lost during Mardi Gras, saying instead she preferred to “focus on 2013.” She said she was meeting with an attorney to consider legal action against the city’s contract.
State laws holds that the city has the “right of control and use” of all public streets, an authority that has been recognized by the courts as far back as 1858.
Dean said there will “always be naysayers” about a large event like Mardi Gras.
“I think we do a pretty good shot at keeping a lot of people involved,” Dean said.
He said downtown businesses are given complimentary tickets so their employees and musical acts don’t need to pay.
Dean said there should be no worries about Mardi Gras coinciding with Super Bowl Sunday, which is Feb. 3. Admission to the downtown will be free that day, and Yaga’s street vendors will shut down at 6 p.m., about half an hour after kickoff.
Mardi Gras returned to Galveston in earnest in 1985, thanks to businessman George Mitchell. The Park Board took over the event in 1987, and the city was involved in the event’s management up until Yaga’s was given the reins. During that time, tickets prices ranged from $5 to $20, depending on the day of the week.
In 2006, the city began allowing free access to downtown during Mardi Gras’ second weekend, following years of declining revenue. In 2008, both weekends became free, but the entertainment district and city-paid vendors were eliminated.
In 2010, the city put out a request for proposals for a promoter, which Dean eventually won.
Having Yaga’s organize Mardi Gras while still bringing in revenue from event fees — and from secondary revenue like hotel and sales taxes — makes sense in the eyes of city leaders.
“It’s a good event, but it’s an expensive event,” Maxwell said. “Anything that can be done to defray the cost of the event is good for Galveston.”