NEW ORLEANS – When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the fate of Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras float-building empire was as precarious as the future of Carnival itself.

It seemed unlikely that New Orleanians would want to don their party gear and regale in the streets after enduring a storm that killed hundreds of people and displaced thousands of residents. But in a testament to the Crescent City’s resilience, revelers dusted off their costumes and marched in the traditional parades just six months after the storm. Three Carnival seasons later, Kern’s business is booming and needs more space to build floats and other decorations for a clientele that has grown far beyond the city’s borders.

Kern is about to more than triple the footprint of Mardi Gras World, the factory and tourism site that has become an institution in New Orleans’ Algiers neighborhood. Kern will take Mardi Gras World across the Mississippi River after more than 60 years of operating exclusively on the west bank. The Algiers location will remain, but it will be dwarfed compared with the gargantuan complex planned for the foot of downtown’s Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

Kern’s lease with the Port of New Orleans gives him control of nearly 300,000 square feet of riverfront space at the Robin Street Wharf and the now-vacant former River City Casino building.

“Katrina taught us a lot of things. One was diversification: You can’t have all your eggs in one basket,” said Barry Kern, Blaine Kern’s son and the president and CEO of Kern Studios, the company that owns Mardi Gras World. “There are a lot of reasons that we need to expand.”

The Mardi Gras World on the east bank could be open for business by the summer, Kern said.

A flamboyantly painted warehouse, the current incarnation of Mardi Gras World brightens an otherwise drab swath of riverfront in Algiers. Despite its obscure setting, the 80,000-square-foot building has long been a draw for tourists.

About 200,000 people visited Mardi Gras World last year, according to Barry Kern. For a fee of less than $20, visitors may enter and witness the sculpting and painting process that breathes life into the towering floats and characters that define Carnival processions. Groups also may rent floor space for events, such as Carnival-theme birthday parties and weddings. The venue books about 20 events each month.

Manufacturing is the bread and butter of Mardi Gras World’s business. Every day, workers are busy fashioning the massive props that belong to local Carnival krewes. The facility is already designing plans for the 2009 parades.

But in recent years, more time and studio space have been devoted to projects that have nothing to do with Mardi Gras. Commercial contracts comprise about one-third of Mardi Gras World’s construction output. Kern’s company builds floats and other gear for various festivals, casinos and venues across the United States and as far away as Europe and Asia.

There also are corporate commissions, such as a four-story-tall cow figurine the company is building for fast-food chain Chick-fil-A, which is slated to stand in Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves baseball team.

The new site will give the company more capacity to boost both the construction and tourism sides of the business. Along with factory tours, the new Mardi Gras World site will have abundant meeting space, which the Kerns hope will draw larger affairs than the Algiers location can handle.

Barry Kern thinks the new site will be a greater success than the Algiers location, largely because it will be closer to the many tourists who prowl the French Quarter but are reticent to make the trip across the Mississippi.

“There are a lot of people who just don’t want to cross the river,” he said. “The port and tourism are the two biggest parts of our city, and we’re bringing them both together.”

PH END DEGREGORIO

(Jen DeGregorio is a staff writer for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans and can be contacted at jdegregorio(at)timespicayune.com.)

2008-02-01-MARDIGRAS-WORLD

AP-NY-02-01-08 1420EST


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