KATHY FINNThere aren’t many cities in the world where word of an upcoming parade can spark newspaper headlines. But most cities don’t wear Mardi Gras like an ID badge. For many New Orleans residents, recent news that some Carnival organizations intend to roll out their parades this season come hell or high water was particularly sweet music to the ears. That’s because both hell and high water have smacked the city, and for many locals, the importance of Mardi Gras proceeding in some fashion this February can’t be overstated. We in New Orleans know that the beauty of Mardi Gras isn’t simply that the massive annual celebration lifts our spirits. The importance of the events surrounding Fat Tuesday is more substantive and is rooted in our economic base. For some of us, though, the near desperation with which the city clings to its Carnival tradition is discomforting. It’s not that the idea of throwing a citywide party seems inappropriate in this sober post-Katrina era. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with working to keep alive one of the city’s biggest economic drivers, especially when the livelihoods of many people rely on it. Rather, what’s troubling about the prospect of relentlessly striving to restore Carnival as this city has long known it is the possibility that we might succeed. New Orleans’ high regard for tradition has been both an asset and a defect through the city’s history. As one of the oldest and most preservation-minded communities in the United States, New Orleans has an inherent appeal that formed the core of a robust tourism industry. But New Orleans is also known for stubbornly clinging to its past, often to the detriment of its future. While some individuals and groups have made notable attempts to clear the cobwebs, progressive thinking and innovation, at least insofar as the local economy is concerned, have been in short supply. That is not necessarily a direct result of our adherence to Carnival traditions, but the two phenomena are not unrelated. By some measures, New Orleans has clung too tightly for too long to its Mardi Gras legacy, and it has done so at a cost. There’s the business cost, for instance. Every year, for at least two weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday and for the remainder of the week following, much local business slows to a snail’s pace. The much bigger business cost is the lost productivity due to local workers taking time off to prepare for and participate in – and recover from – the season’s traditions. We’re not talking about workers who merely leave work a little early to beat traffic or to line up a spot on the parade route. This is more about gatherings such as French Quarter krewe luncheons that begin at 11 a.m. and end after dark. Or the weekday-long “preparations” that parade riders routinely indulge in before their evening procession begins. Look at any up-and-coming city in America and try to find local businesspeople spending time like that. Add up the hours some krewe members spend in such activities – and consider that many individuals belong to more than one krewe – and it’s clear that Carnival consumes a good chunk of upper-management and professional time that could go toward building a more economically viable city. And that’s before you look at the consumer costs. We know from the past efforts of academicians who studied direct spending related to Carnival that locals toss out millions of dollars annually for floats, costumes, parade throws, pre-parade parties, music, food and drink. Full participation in local Carnival traditions can run into tens of thousands of dollars a year for a single household. There’s no denying that such spending benefits the local businesses that cater to Carnival’s demands. But based on the relative softness of the local economy over a long period, it’s safe to say that some who immerse themselves year after year in Carnival’s most expensive traditions probably can ill afford it. A still more damaging aspect of Carnival may be its role in defining a person’s “place” in local society. New Orleans is hardly alone in sorting its denizens into this or that social tier based on some combination of their money, power and influence. Surely it’s no coincidence that many of the best-known, clout-laden families are associated with the oldest Carnival krewes. The existence of such rarified and to some degree, exclusionary social strata does not serve New Orleans well from a business standpoint. Corporate leaders looking to do business in this city aren’t interested in being introduced to a “king” or “queen” of this or that Carnival krewe. They’d much rather shake hands with people like themselves, who have attained stature in the community by building successful, growing enterprises and providing opportunities for those who come behind them. One has to wonder: Could the common complaint that New Orleans lacks good job opportunities for its young people be in any way related to the city’s preoccupation with Mardi Gras? New Orleans is one of the most interesting cities in the world, in no small part owing to its love of tradition. And Mardi Gras is indisputably an important part of our collective identity. But recently forces beyond our control blasted this city into a new reality, and now we have choices. We can respond by struggling, instinctively, to put ourselves back together exactly as we were before the hurricane. Or, when the last week of February 2006 comes around, we can pause long enough to roll out the carpet for what we hope will be many thousands of visitors, and we can take a little time to enjoy Mardi Gras ourselves, before returning quickly to the business of building New Orleans into a vibrant city of the 21st century. Kathy Finn is news director of BizNewOrleans.com, which is owned by New Orleans Magazine’s parent company, MCMedia LLC.