Dancing in the streets

The Manassas City Council is once again posed with the decision on whether to allow people to take to the streets in a local celebration of Mardi Gras. Let’s hope their decision is based on a firm bed of facts rather than fear mongering and hearsay.

The owners of Okra’s Louisiana Bistro hope to hold a celebration on Battle and Center streets on March 4. The popular event was forced indoors by the council last year even though the council closed the streets for other public festivals and at least one “invitation only” event last year. More than 50 residents spoke about the planned event at a city council meeting last week, but the governing body chose to put off a decision until Monday. It makes us wonder why they feel they need more time.

The outdoor festival, held on Shrove Tuesday in accordance with tradition, had played out on Battle Street for two years until Manassas City Council voted to turn down last year’s request. That vote was one of the worst exhibitions of open government and fair play seen in many years. There was no initial forum for public input and the city officials showed little willingness to work with co-owner Charles Gilliam and his staff in making changes to improve the Mardi Gras celebration.

They instead caved to the outlandish fears spread by a few activists who compared this local celebration to the events that go on in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. First of all, no one would ever mistake Old Town Manassas for the French Quarter. Bad things happen on Bourbon Street every single night of the year (and during the day). Mardi Gras just focuses the world’s attention on it for one night.

Manassas City Council along with its city manager and police chief have had one year to look into the prospects of reviving the Okra’s Mardi Gras celebration. By the looks of things, they’ve done very little while the management of Okra’s has at least tried to mitigate concerns raised a year ago. Okra’s has teamed up with other businesses in the area to ensure an all-inclusive celebration with people of all ages. They have shown willingness to work with city officials as well. Precautions are being taken, and it’s doubtful the applicants will let things get out of hand considering the publicity the festival has garnered the past 12 months.

This diligence was rewarded with letters from the police chief and town manager last month recommending denial of the Okra’s request. They cite traffic, noise and safety concerns in their letters to the city council. They voiced those concerns even though most businesses are closed on week nights and the reason for a street festival is to close the streets. If people get out of hand, arrest them.

In the year since being turned down, Okra’s co-owner, Charles Gilliam, has been left with no standards to abide by, no plan from the city manager or police chief and no conditions to follow in planning such an event. Perhaps the owners should remove the Mardi Gras name and call it a tea party complete with a fashion show. That would get prompt approval and the public streets would be closed in a heartbeat.

An editorial last year on this same topic suggested that city officials work with the applicant and fellow business owners to ensure a good set of ground rules for future Mardi Gras celebrations. It looks like that’s only been a one-sided effort.

The bottom line is that festivals, whether it be Mardi Gras, the Railroad Festival, Fall Jubilee or the spring tea party, attract people to Old Town. These events shine a positive light on Old Town and those attending often return in the future to shop, sightsee, dine and spend their money.

There are always concerns with gatherings of large groups. Let’s face it, Mardi Gras isn’t the only event where crowds gather to eat, drink and be merry. But there’s no reason for the city to penalize the owners of Okra’s and the businesses supporting them just because they’ve taken initiative and pride in their city to organize such an event.

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