At noon Friday, crews put the finishing touches on the Family Gras main stage at Veterans Memorial Boulevard and Severn Avenue in Metairie, tweaking the sound system under gloomy, gunmetal gray skies.
The orange plastic fencing meant to defend the landscaping was up, the portable toilets were out and organizers whispered silent prayers that the scattered showers forecast for the evening would spare the event, which was set to begin at 5 p.m. with music from Tony Orlando and parades featuring the Krewes of Exalibur and Atlas.
Jefferson Parish officials are hoping the third annual Family Gras festival – billed by the parish as a family-friendly Mardi Gras alternative – will surpass last year’s in terms of attendance and economic impact.
The parish’s overall Carnival season generated a total of $24 million in 2008 and attracted 800,000 people, according to a recently released study by the University of New Orleans Hospitality Research Center and the Jefferson Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Family Gras 2008 was a big part of that total, with a concert line-up featuring Billy Ray Cyrus, Taylor Swift and the Bangles that drummed up about $3 million of that cash, according to Violet Peters, president and CEO of the convention and visitor’s bureau.
That’s quite a come-up for the festival, which generated about $500,000 in its first year.
“We’re very enthusiastic because it can only go up from here,” said Peters Friday afternoon, dressed in Mardi Gras purple, green and gold as she zipped around the concert site checking last-minute details.
The visitor’s bureau isn’t making any predictions for this year, but Peters’ said they’ve gotten great feedback from their advertising campaigns. The bureau targeted communities within a 200-mile radius of the parish hoping to attract out-of-town guests.
Indeed, Family Gras has expanded to include a second stage featuring Louisiana musicians on North Hullen Street behind Chevy’s restaurant, as well as an art market in the Whole Foods parking lot on Veterans.
This year’s concert line-up boasts national favorites such as Sheena Easton, Davy Jones of The Monkees, Jesse McCartney and Sara Bareilles, whose hit “Love Song” dominated radio airwaves in 2007 and 2008.
Much-beloved local acts include Bobby Cure & The Summertime Blues Band, Benny Grunch and The Topcats.
Despite the ominous forecast all Jefferson Parish parades are expected to roll this weekend, according to Karen Kraak Wood, director of Carnival for Jefferson Parish.
“I think there’s no indication there will be any (thunder) storms,” Wood said about noon Friday, indicating that local meterologists have assured her there will be no parade-canceling lightning. said.
But if the skies open up over Family Gras, organizers are ready. Last year, downpours turned the plaza area into a lumpy, muddy mess. Now, attendees will dance on a layer of limestone.
Over near the food booths opposite the main stage,David Brewster and Chris LaBonty of New Orleans Cookery unloaded equipment and ingredients Friday afternoon for their tasty wares: Louisiana crab cakes, alligator-on-a-stick, Swannie’s blackened bourbon chicken and Cajun stew. Both remember last year’s soggy weather, which Brewster said kept some folks away. But he remained positive, citing that the forecast calls for scattered showers.
“That means it’s gonna rain around us,” Brewster said.