Gretna krewe to parade again

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER --  Float artist Anthony Nguyen sketches a design on a Krewe of Grela float at the carnival groups den in St. Rose last week. The Gretna krewe will again parade on Mardi Gras in 2013.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Float artist Anthony Nguyen sketches a design on a Krewe of Grela float at the carnival groups den in St. Rose last week. The Gretna krewe will again parade on Mardi Gras in 2013.

’12 money issue grounded Grela

After a one-year hiatus, the Krewe of Grela is finalizing plans for its return to Mardi Gras next year in a move that at least one Gretna official believes could position the city as Carnival central on the West Bank.

Jefferson Parish’s oldest Carnival organization has long expressed plans to return to parading in 2013 after sitting out the 2012 Carnival season because of funding issues and reorganization. New Grela Captain Russell Lloyd said he thinks Grela’s return will hearken back to the glory days of Mardi Gras on the West Bank.

“This is going to be something that the West Bank has not seen since the West Bank was booming,” promised Lloyd, who also is a captain in the Gretna Police Department. “People are going to want to be a part of this.”

Lloyd said Grela plans to double the size of its last parade and will have 22 floats and 10 truck floats for a total of more than 700 riders. There are commitments from more than a dozen bands, some of them with 200 members. The parade will help kick off Gretna’s centennial celebration, and floats will be decorated like well-known businesses and landmarks throughout the city, Lloyd said. In fact, the honorary marshal for the parade is Sal Divincenti, a 100-year-old former Gretna business owner.

“I can’t compete with New Orleans and Metairie, I know that,” Lloyd acknowledged. “What I want is a quality parade in the city of Gretna.”

Any parade in Gretna will be an improvement over 2012, when the city had no parades throughout Carnival season for the first time in decades. That disruption came after city officials determined they could no longer afford to provide police and public works services for free and hit Grela and several other West Bank krewes with bills for those services.

Grela was told it would have to come up with between $69,000 and $81,000 to parade on Mardi Gras, and the already struggling krewe could not find the extra money. Several other West Bank krewes ended their 2012 routes outside of Gretna to avoid the fees.

Gretna’s decision was a by-product of the city’s shrinking budget, and came after city officials had to choose between funding Mardi Gras and the massive Gretna Heritage Festival. Gretna did eventually dedicate $60,000 from council members’ discretionary funds for the parade.

Funding problems are a problem for smaller krewes throughout the metropolitan area. The Krewe of Orpheus in Mandeville and the Krewe of Claude in Slidell are not rolling this year. The Krewe of Lyria, which followed Orpheus, is moving its parade to Covington because of Orpheus’ decision.

The West Bank lost the krewes of Cleopatra and Choctaw to the east bank, although the Krewes of Alla and Nomtoc will remain. In fact, Alla is trying to extend its route back into Gretna, and is working out a deal with several Jefferson Parish council members to get the funding the city requires.

Gretna Mayor Ronnie Harris said that by all accounts, Grela took the city’s advice about improving the quality of its parade. He said the krewe seems “invigorated” after wholesale changes on its board of directors, and he was pleased by the size and scope of the upcoming parade. For years, Harris noted, Grela seemed to be struggling to put on a quality celebration, but that has clearly changed.

“I applaud them for that,” Harris said. “I certainly hope that this bodes well for Grela, because it would bode well for Gretna.”

Council members Belinda Constant and Wayne Rau have been two of the biggest supporters of a Mardi Gras celebration in Gretna. Constant, who ponied up $40,000 from her discretionary fund to help Grela, said Gretna should not be defined by a single event like the Heritage Festival. She said if Grela puts on a quality parade, it will enhance the stature of Gretna and possibly bring economic development.

“I am pro-Mardi Gras on the West Bank. It’s, I think, a quality of life activity,” Constant said.

To that end, Constant pushed through a new ordinance that eased Gretna’s long-standing rules that barred barbecuing or tents along parade routes and eliminated restrictions on parade size. She helped design a new route for Grela that sticks to the city’s main thoroughfares like Franklin Avenue, the West Bank Expressway and Huey P. Long Avenue instead of winding through cramped city streets.

Lloyd said those changes will return a tailgating atmosphere to Mardi Gras, which is what many families want. Constant said she’s not sure why the city enacted some of those rules, but they have clearly driven away some krewes and some parade visitors.

“I don’t know who or what or why (the changes were made) but there were a lot of people who left the West Bank when those changes were made,” she said.

Nevertheless, Harris said he can already see some possible problems with the new rules, like the potential safety hazards of city employees having to remove hot coals. There could also be more cleanup issues because larger streets and more encampments could lead to more trash.

“The reason those rules were enacted that way was based on some level of experience,” Harris said. “I guess we may have to relive history again.”

In fact, Lloyd said, the parade will relive history in at least one way: One of the throws Grela will use in 2013 is a replica of the wooden nickels the krewe used in 1960, three days before the Krewe of Rex says it threw Mardi Gras’ first doubloons. Lloyd said those nickels are the true first doubloons of Mardi Gras, although well-known Mardi Gras historian Arthur Hardy disagrees. Hardy said he’s extremely happy to see Grela return, but typically doubloons are metal, not “wooden, coin-shaped objects.”

“That’s kind of like comparing apples and oranges,” he said.