Mardi Gras still undecided

Local business owners spoke of the need to bring people into Manassas’ downtown. Christian activists brought up the issue of respectability and the importance of upholding moral standards.

In the end, the Manassas City Council decided Monday night to hold off on deciding whether a Mardi Gras celebration should be allowed March 4 on the streets of Old Town. A vote is now scheduled for next Monday.

“I would have liked to have had a decision tonight,” said Okra’s Louisiana Bistro co-owner Charles Gilliam, who said his establishment would still be able to hold the event, despite the week’s delay.

“It’s something I think everyone wanted.”

The meeting, which drew as many as 50 people, was markedly different from the one last year, when the City Council voted 5-1 in a closed session to ban Mardi Gras from Battle Street, where the festival had been held for two years. Only those opposed to the festival were present to make comments before the vote.

This time, Okra’s is asking the city to allow it to stage an expanded event on both Battle and Center Streets. And both Mardi Gras supporters and opponents were present Monday night to make their case.

Expanding the festival, Gilliam argued, would allow Okra’s to limit alcohol sales and consumption to an area on Battle Street for those over 21, while an entire block of Center Street would host more family-oriented activities, such as clown performances, face painting and carnival games.

Bands will entertain. Outdoor model car racing is planned. At least 12 businesses in Old Town are willing to join in the venture, Gilliam said.

The event will have new times and amended site plans, all meant to try and address concerns of traffic, noise and safety problems raised by Police Chief John Skinner and City Manager Lawrence Hughes in previous weeks.

Skinner said as many as 20 police officers, whose salaries Gilliam has promised to pay, would be needed to provide security at the event, which might draw as many as 5,000 people. Center Street would be closed to traffic between 10 a.m. and 2 a.m., a prospect which elicited some comments from members of the council.

“I’m really concerned about that,” said Councilman Robert (Bob) Oliver. “There’s a safety and a control of traffic issue.”

During the meeting, members of area churches raised moral concerns about Mardi Gras. Denny Nissley, who said he had ministered to partygoers at New Orlean’s Mardi Gras for 21 consecutive years, showed pictures of transvestites and gay men kissing during the celebrations.

“Mardi Gras degenerates people,” he said. “We’re on a very slippery slope as a community.”

The Rev. Scott Leib of Manassas Assembly of God said the city has a reputation to uphold.

“Everywhere Mardi Gras goes, things happen,” he said.

Ray Willis, president of the Old Town Business Association, told the council that the decision of whether to hold the festival outdoors should have nothing to do with the morality of particular groups of people. Rather, it was a matter of public safety. And Willis believed the local police were up to the task.

Mardi Gras, he said, would raise the appeal of Old Town.

“If we can handle it, let’s try it,” Willis said. “It’s worth trying one time. Here we have a business willing to fund an event that’s going to bring several thousand people into the downtown.”

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