When D.C. Caribbean Carnival Inc. announced last week that it was moving its annual parade to Baltimore, it seemed sketchy — like a blindside hit to many of the festival’s ardent supporters. But what hopefully is a temporary relocation could end up being the most productive outcome for the event going forward.
Last year, after a series of ugly events — a stabbing, multiple shootings and a mass brawl near Howard University — marred the festival, many called for its cancellation.
And after two years of increasing debt to the tune of $210,000, the District finally said no to footing the bill for the Georgia Avenue event. Now, it’s set to take place partly in Charm City, which should give everyone on this end a chance to take a look at what went wrong and fix it.
It would a shame if the city and the event organizers didn’t look at this opportunity as a time to re-brand, re-configure and effectively re-invent one of the most culturally diverse days on the D.C. calendar for the past 20 years.
The first step is a more realistic look at fundraising. Because of what Loughton Sargeant, executive director at D.C. Caribbean Carnival Inc., describes as an agreement between the city and his organization, the festival’s costs are paid back with the revenue from the carnival. But revenue hasn’t covered the total costs, recently leading to the carnival operating in the red.
“We have had issues in the past where we have worked out our differences to make the event happen,” Sargeant said. “In 20 years, we’ve had good years and bad years, so we were always able to work things out. But this year for some reason, the situation was ‘either you pay the bill or it might not happen.’ ”
The truth is that the District simply just can’t afford to take another public relations hit with the festival as it did last year. And there’s real money involved: According to a Howard University School of Business economic impact study conducted for 2011, the D.C. Carnival event produced about $1.3 million in tax revenue dollars. And 92 percent of Georgia Avenue business owners said the event helped the corridor, according to the study.
With such strong financial impact, all parties involved need to do more to keep the event in D.C. City Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) said in a statement last week, “Unfortunately, the Mayor’s decision to punish parade organizers for past due debt also punishes Georgia Avenue businesses, parade-goers, our tax coffers, and — most of all — the Caribbean community.”
The parade passes partly through her jurisdiction, and she blames the city for its demise. “In the end, the administration’s failure of understanding, and of will, was the undoing of this great event.”
Not everyone in the neighborhood feels the same way. Navendra Jagdeo, owner of Lil' GT Cafe on Georgia Avenue, called the event organizers’ efforts to raise money “lackluster.” “They should do a dance or a concert every two to three months, right after the carnival is done to try to raise money. They don’t do anything,” Jagdeo said, though acknowledging that the city has taken an overly harsh stance on collecting on the event’s debts.
What’s clear is that nobody involved wants to see the D.C. Caribbean Carnival permanently relocate. For all of the disparaging and condescending remarks you see about the event in the comments section on popular blogs across the city, it’s embarrassing to see Baltimore steal what would have been the 20th anniversary of one of the best cultural landmarks this city has to offer.
“Really and truly at the end of the day, we feel like we’ve been kind of kicked to the curb, because a lot of people see it as a nuisance. We see it as a cultural event that brings more than just a good party on Georgia Avenue,” Sargeant said. “It brings a lot more to the city.”
And that’s exactly why it needs to come back. If it takes a mega corporate sponsor like, say, LivingSocial, Capital One Bank or AOL, so be it. Sure, you might lose some so-called street cred, but one big company isn’t going to kill the soul of a decades-old event if the people don’t let it.
“The one thing about the carnival that’s done here on Georgia Avenue versus in Canada for Caribana and New York for the Labor Day parade is you have a hometown feel,” Jagdeo said. “That’s the beautiful thing about D.C.”
If you’ve ever been to it, the smell is what stays with you. The cuisine alone is worth the effort. And between the costumes, the outfits, the music and the camaraderie, there’s nothing else like it. It would be a shame to see D.C. lose its most colorful day of the year over a relatively small amount of green.
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