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The Sounds of Success 

From the sermon of Bishop T. D. Jakes to the resilient voice of Etta James, from comedian Steve Harvey poking fun at Mayor Ray Nagin's looks to the rainbow of fashion inside the Superdome, the 2002 Coca-Cola Essence Music Festival provided countless highlights. This year, one sound grew significantly louder and sweeter: the ring of cash registers.

According to festival organizers, this year's Essence Festival broke attendance records by a wide margin, with an estimated 223,000 patrons. To put that number in perspective, that's roughly the same amount of fans that the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival attracts in its first weekend each year. While the Jazz Fest has built its cache over 32 years, the Essence Festival is still a relative youngster, having just celebrating its seventh birthday.

The success of the Essence Festival is no small feat, and it validates the vision of Essence Communications Partners and Festival Productions' George Wein, who saw the potential of a festival celebrating African-American culture and music. Skeptics questioned the feasibility of the event at its inception, clinging to the antiquated business notion that visitors can't be enticed to New Orleans in the hot months of summer. Those naysayers were silenced with the Essence Festival's impressive 1995 debut, which drew 142,000 patrons. The attendance numbers have steadily increased each year, leading to the impressive 10 percent increase in attendance in 2002.

That accomplishment is even more notable, considering that New Orleans almost lost the Essence Festival in 1996. On the eve of the festival's sophomore event, Essence threatened to relocate after Gov. Mike Foster tried to end Louisiana's affirmative action programs. Atlanta and Houston courted Essence in that period of uncertainty, but the Morial administration guided negotiations that assured festival organizers of Louisiana's commitment to Essence's values -- and the event's value to the city. In turn, Essence has proven to be a good corporate citizen to New Orleans. The festival offers free empowerment seminars featuring national authors and speakers -- and donates proceeds from sales of empowerment seminar cassettes to the New Orleans Recreation Department.

The only disappointing aspect of the Essence Festival in recent years has been its slim bookings of Louisiana musicians. Diverse local acts such as the Gospel Soul Children, the Treme Brass Band, and rapper Myself are a natural fit for Essence and deserve slots at the festival. The smaller Superlounge stages should burst with local talent, and we'd like to see one Superlounge devoted entirely to Louisiana artists.

The Essence Festival is currently under contract through 2006, which is good news for the New Orleans tourism industry. However, some hospitality executives are reportedly unhappy with some of the terms in the current contract. The contract was signed by the Morial administration in April, and now the task of ironing out rough spots falls to the Nagin administration. We wish Mayor Nagin and hospitality executives success in resolving any outstanding issues.

As the mayor addresses those concerns, Festival Productions, Inc. has presented Nagin and the city with plans for another opportunity to promote cultural tourism in New Orleans -- a Latin music festival. Discussions on the proposed festival began during Jazz Fest season and have progressed quickly, but are reportedly at an impasse over Festival Productions' request for $3 million in seed money from the city and the hospitality industry. Scheduling is also an issue, as initial plans call for the Latin music festival to be held in August, and the availability of the Superdome in that time frame is in question.

Those are legitimate issues, but we urge Nagin, the city and Festival Productions to work toward a mutually beneficial agreement to bring a Latin music festival to New Orleans. This city's large Latin-American community would give the festival a strong initial base of support, and other cities have shown that Latin music can be a strong economic engine and tourism draw. Chicago's long-running Viva Chicago! Latin Music Festival has been attracting impressive crowds for 13 years; its 2001 festival drew 160,000 patrons.

Equally important, Festival Productions has a proven track record of producing world-class music festivals, as its history with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Essence Festival bears out. And there is no greater benchmark for gauging the potential of a Latin music festival than the success of the Essence Festival. Essence has shown that visitors and locals alike will embrace the Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center as festival sites. Festival Productions' reputation and music industry acumen would also ensure a stellar talent lineup that would draw Latin music fans from around the world.

Seven years ago, many observers questioned the viability of the Essence Music Festival. Now Essence is one of the crown jewels of New Orleans' tourism industry, along with Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. A Latin music festival could be another gem to add to the crown.

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