2012 D.C. Caribbean Carnival in doubt

April 10, 2012

The annual D.C. Caribbean Carnival is in serious financial trouble and may not occur this year, organizers say.

City officials say they will not sign off on the Caribbean Carnival until the event’s organizers pay off hundreds of thousands of dollars owed to the District for police and other services provided for the 2010 and 2011 carnivals.

But the people behind the carnival say they do not have the $210,000 owed to the city.

The festival, usually staged in June on Georgia Avenue NW, celebrates pan-Caribbean culture and the carnival experience.

Last year, the city allowed organizers to carry over a debt from the 2010 event, but now officials appear to be taking a harder line.


Dorothy Blake, of Berwyn, Md., is resplendent in a huge wheeled costume, representing Trinidad, Tobago, in the 19th annual Caribbean Carnival on June, 25, 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

In letters to event organizers, D.C. officials have sought payment of the $210,437.38, mostly for security and public works expenses. The most recent letter, from Deputy Mayor Paul Quander said “approval of the 2012 Carnival would be contingent upon payment of any outstanding balances from the 2010 and 2011 Carnivals.”

As the event’s finances stand, organizers would not be able to pay back the entire debt and pay for the coming summer’s carnival, according to Roland Barnes, carnival president.

To try to save money, organizers are considering other locations, but the event has struggled to attract donations and sponsors in recent years. The parade route, which ends at Barry Place NW, near Howard University, used to stretch as far north as Missouri Avenue NW. But it was shortened last year and went only as far north as Kansas Avenue NW.

If the event were held elsewhere in the city, it would not be the first time. Organizers moved it downtown in 2003, hoping to attract more sponsorship. But after uproar over the move, the festival returned to Georgia Avenue the next year, said Loughton Sargeant, the executive director.

The downtown carnival lacked the “community feel” of the Georgia Avenue events, Barnes said. Barnes predicted that something similar would happen if the event needed to move elsewhere this year. “It would be very impersonal,” Barnes said. “On Georgia Avenue, families can come out on the avenue, bring their lawn chairs. You can’t enjoy that in places like downtown.”

D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) has participated in the event, which runs through his ward.

“It is one of the best days in the District of Columbia,” he said.

But Graham said the major issue is the committee’s debt to the city, and he hopes to work out a way for the city to be paid and the carnival to go ahead.

The office of D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) is coming to the event’s aid, said Rob Hawkins, Bowser’s legislative director. Bowser’s office will work with event organizers to “identify a new venue” for the event, which occurs partially within Bowser’s ward.

A study released in April by the Howard University School of Business found that the carnival had a significant effect on local businesses. An estimated 400,000 people attended the event in 2011, spending more than $21 million and providing nearly $1.3 million in sales tax revenue to the city.

A move away from Georgia Avenue — or the outright cancellation of the event — would affect Georgia Avenue businesses, said Allison J. Morgan, a Howard professor and one of the study’s co-authors. “Those businesses would definitely see a decrease in revenue over the course of the year,” she said.

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