What, if anything, can the city of Galveston and others involved in big annual tourist events such Mardi Gras, Dickens on The Strand and the Lone Star Rally do to reduce the burden they pose for residents and downtown business owners?
The answer to that thorny question might very well be nothing much.
Despite that, what appears to be a growing constituency is posing that question, which makes it worthy of exploring in a formal, organized way.
Allen Flores, who owns a couple of downtown businesses, has for years argued practices such as closing city streets and allowing a private firm to charge admission fees to enter what’s normally a public space — parts of The Strand area during Mardi Gras, for example — is illegal.
City officials argue it’s not illegal and gates and admission fees have been the practice for most of the time since Mardi Gras was revived in the 1980s.
Legal and traditional or not, there’s no doubt that turning a public space into an entertainment zone requiring a ticket to enter is burdensome to people who live, work and operate businesses therein.
Flores has until recently been a lone voice of dissent among business owners about the management of large events. Most of the rest have typically said the business bump they get, or the general benefit to the island economy from the events, more than offset the inconvenience.
That seems to have changed, a little at least.
Recently, Trey Click, executive director of the Historic Downtown Galveston Partnership, has been talking about a dedicated festival space, which Click envisions outdoors with a stage, that could enclose the people and vehicle traffic, he said.
“The number-one reason is to not close access to businesses and to try to somehow contain these things,” Click said. “I think we’re coming to a position in Galveston of local versus tourist.”
The proposition raises many questions. Among the first is whether it’s even possible to move some popular events out of downtown. Where would you stage Dickens on The Strand except on The Strand?
Galveston’s Mardi Gras celebration also is closely linked to The Strand. Is it possible to stage a successful Mardi Gras without a gated entertainment area?
Mike Dean, owner of Yaga’s Entertainment, which has had the contract to stage Mardi Gras in recent years, argues it’s not.
“Special events are a critical epicenter of a vibrant downtown,” Dean said. “I wouldn’t be in favor of moving.”
Downtown festivals also are good for restaurants and bars, which benefit from increased foot traffic, Dean said.
There’s also a question about whether holding a Mardi Gras without gates and tickets would pose a public safety problem.
It’s a legitimate question. Even years ago, when the city managed Mardi Gras, there was a distinct difference between the crowd that came early and bought tickets and the crowd that arrived after the gates were opened.
That 10 p.m. to midnight crowd always was more inclined toward the mayhem, forcing the city to pay for a huge police presence.
All that aside, it’s clear Galveston is showing signs of the festival fatigue that has infected other cities popular among tourists.
City leaders are obliged to take that resident dissatisfaction seriously and at least ask what can be done to make the events less onerous to people who live and work here.
• Michael Smith