NEW ORLEANS (AP) - In 1995, Essence Communications Inc. threw a three-day bash in New Orleans for the 25th anniversary of its magazine. Thousands showed up for arguably the largest party ever showcasing black musical talent and culture. Seventeen years later the "party with a purpose" has evolved into the annual Essence Music Festival, a powerful economic engine and pilgrimage point for a tourism-driven city still rebounding from Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill.
The festival, held annually over the Fourth of July weekend, opens Friday with daily free activities inside the New Orleans convention center and ticketed concerts at the Louisiana Superdome each night through the festival's close on Sunday. Headliners this year include Usher, Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Hudson, Chaka Khan, Kanye West, Jill Scott, New Edition and Fantasia _ a lineup designed to celebrate the roots of rhythm and blues.
Once again, a city hit hard by Katrina's floodwaters in 2005 and last year's oil massive spill off the Louisiana coast, is bustling with those who make New Orleans a yearly pilgrimage or reunion point for the Essence festival.
"This event has basically kept the city afloat every summer," said Toni Rice, president of the New Orleans Multicultural Tourism Network. "You could ask any hotel or restaurant manager in the city and they would tell you that if it were not for Essence, their doors would be closed.
Citywide, hotels are booked at nearly 100 percent capacity both Friday and Saturday night, Rice said.
"The economic impact is huge," she said. "We are happy to have it and know that other cities would love to get their hands on it. But we are a good fit and if I have anything to say about it, we're not going to let it go."
After Hurricane Katrina, the 2006 festival moved to Houston while the Superdome and convention center underwent major renovations to repair the storm damage. The event promptly returned to New Orleans in 2007, heartily welcomed back. City officials have said the festival will remain in New Orleans at least through 2014.
Once again, there's more than just music.
The Rev. Al Sharpton will be among the keynote speakers for the Essence Empowerment Experience at the convention center. Also appearing for free panel discussions will be White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed _ as well as celebrities, educators and civic leaders discussing such issues as love, relationships, education and spirituality in the African American community.
Michelle Ebanks, ECI's president, promises a packed holiday weekend of music, celebration and much more.
"This weekend is about transformation, transforming life, community and soul," Ebanks said, adding there's something for everyone _ even beauty and fashion shows. "That's an important part of our purpose _ to have fun, but to also make a difference. Our partners are putting on a free show inside the convention center that will be unbelievable. I believe they must have decided they were in competition with the Superdome at night."
Ebanks said she still comes across first-timers at the festival 17 years later who don't cease to surprise at the many offerings of the so-called "destination event."
The destination event concept has helped the city transform its usually listless summer tourist season into one of the premier times to visit _ despite steamy Gulf heat and thunderstorms that can pop up at any time.
More than 400,000 people attended the festival in 2010.
According to studies conducted by the University of New Orleans Hospitality Research Center, on average, the festival generates more than $5.2 million in city taxes and $7.9 million in state taxes, with $47.6 million of earnings for area residents. The research released by the mayor's office indicates those who attend spend more than $280 a day on average, with over $172 million in spending.
Meanwhile, Ebanks is promising notable "firsts" at this year's event.
"It's the first time that Usher will headline the festival," she said. "It's the first appearance for Grammy award-winning singer Jennifer Hudson. There's excitement about the New Edition reunion. That really has people talking.
"There's excitement about the transformation that's undergoing inside the Superdome, which is being renovated. We've recast the Super Lounges to reflect themes like the Minneapolis Sound, where Alexander O'Neal and Cherelle will perform along with Mint Condition and Morris Day and The Time."
A $336 million multiphase transformation of the Superdome's interior includes new field-level stands with 24,500 seats and exclusive lounges.
"I'm just as excited about this one as I was for any one before it," Ebanks said. "We plan to bring a show the likes of which you have not seen."