- Associated Press - Friday, July 4, 2014

SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) - With more than 400 festivals on Louisiana’s annual calendar, only a handful are major economic engines and cultural bastions. The journey from folksy festival to tourism powerhouse has as much to do with maintaining uniqueness as bringing in dollars.

“Food and music are inherent components of almost any festival, and beyond that you have the color and flavor based on the community they represent. There’s a huge element of community pride.” said Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who oversees the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. “We’re capturing a big economic driver. People are always interested in starting new ones, and it’s not like we’ve maxed out our tolerance on festivals.”

There’s no end of things Louisianians are willing to celebrate - strawberries in Ponchatoula, mudbugs in Shreveport, jazz and heritage in New Orleans, catfish in Winnsboro, tomatoes in Chalmette, pirates in Lake Charles, author Walker Percy in St. Francisville, playwright Tennessee Williams in New Orleans again, meat pies in Natchitoches, pecans in Colfax, ducks in Gueydan, shrimp and petroleum in Morgan City, jambalaya in Gonzales, the blues in Bogalusa, corn in Bunkie and tamales in Zwolle.

Mardi Gras, the grandaddy of all Louisiana festivals, is celebrated statewide.

Some draw hundreds while others draw thousands. Capitalizing on success, however that is defined, is the name of the game.

“The Texas Avenue Makers Fair is getting so big it’s become a festival itself. Let the Good Times Roll has exploded. Mudbug Madness is easy to sell because it’s an industrial-strength dose of Louisiana culture,” said Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau spokesman Chris Jay. “And there are others you can’t help but wonder what’s next for them.”

Part of Jay’s job is marketing the local area to outsiders. Events such as Mudbug Madness Festival are a big part of that. As an event grows in size and scope, it becomes easier to pitch outside the local market.

Jay said crawfish and Cajun music are the major selling points for Mudbug Madness and help to tailor its appeal. If you took the Cajun music out or interspersed it with R&B; and jazz, it just wouldn’t be the same, he said.

“Something for everyone has sort of lost its appeal,” Jay said. “It’s a narrow line to walk, but you have to hang onto that unique identity.”

The festivals out-of-towners and national media contact him about are the ones with their own identity, he said.

“It’s the ones that embody who we are as a destination that I hear about,” Jay said.

Despite Mudbug Madness’ success - 2014 may have been its highest-grossing year - there’s still room for growth. But that means finding new money, which has its pitfalls.

The threat of losing a festival’s uniqueness to sponsorship is real, said Mudbug Madness Festival chairwoman Terri Mathews. At the same time, it’s those sponsorships that took the festival from a one-vendor-one-act fair to the event it is today.

“Sponsorships are hard to come by these days,” Mathews said. “If people are just looking for a handout, that’s not a partnership, that’s a donation, and donations can come and go like the wind.”

The French Quarter Festival started small and is now one of New Orleans’ most popular festivals, said Jan Ramsey, editor-in-chief of OffBeat Magazine and a former festival board member. The idea for the free festival was to lure people back downtown after years of construction with music and food.

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