By Joseph Neese - email
MOBILE, AL (RNN) - With an idea as small as a marshmallow creme pie, a city councilman in Alabama has given a critical boost to his city's economy and changed the way local governments do business.
"I've been for a long time trying to help Mobile find its niche," said Fred Richardson, vice president of the Mobile City Council, after a meeting Tuesday.
At first, Richardson thought the key to Mobile's success would lie in its identity as "The Port City." But he realized that any city on the water could make that claim.
And so he focused on Mobile as "The Azalea City."
In Mobile, there is a famous group of high school-aged young women called "Azalea Trail Maids," who serve as ambassadors for the city.
Bellingrath Gardens, a renowned, lush public garden and home that is open to the public and was founded in 1934 by a former Coca-Cola executive, is filled with the colorful flowers.
Richardson said that since the flowers blossom throughout the South, they were not unique enough to Mobile.
And so Richardson fixated on a small, marshmallow creme pie.
"I got to thinking about the MoonPie, because it was synonymous with Mobile," Richardson said.
The MoonPie, which is baked by the Chattanooga Bakery in Tennessee, is the iconic symbol of Mardi Gras. Since the first marshmallow treat was thrown in 1952, the MoonPie has become the treat of choice for those who man the floats in the Mardi Gras parades.
Though many associate Mardi Gras with New Orleans, the fun-filled carnival was first celebrated in America in Mobile in 1703.
More than 850,000 new celebrate Mardi Gras in Mobile during the season's parades and balls.
The Cowbellion de Rakin, which was the first parading organization in the country, was also formed in Mobile in 1830. Now, more than 50 Mardi Gras organizations operate in Mobile.
But what really stood out to Richardson was the fact that people of all ages flock to downtown Mobile for a chance to catch a MoonPie at a parade to take home and enjoy later that evening.
"I don't know anyone who has an objection to the MoonPie," he said.
Thus begat Richardson's idea that presented at a Mobile City Council meeting: Take $9,000 from the city's budget and use it to drop a giant MoonPie, like the famous Times Square ball.
But according to Barbara Drummond, director of communication for the city of Mobile, the original idea wasn't that clean-cut.
"It came from somewhat of an idea that people thought was pretty crazy," she said.
Richardson's original idea was to take a giant, cooked MoonPie and throw it off of the top of the RSA tower, Mobile's tallest skyscraper.
The conclusion was that that would "make a mess," Drummond said. But the council realized that Richardson was onto something.
They found a way to incorporate the idea into Mobile's New Year's celebration in 2008, which prior to that point only included about 500 people.
The city government approached one of the city's float builders and had a 600-pound, 12-foot electronic MoonPie with massive LED lights built.
"And it was just extraordinary," Drummond said.
On Dec. 31, 2008, the first "MoonPie Over Mobile" celebration took place. The giant pie was dropped across the river from the city, resulting in visibility issues. But still, 15,000 people showed up for the event, a 30 percent increase over the previous year.
"We knew then that we were on to something," Drummond said.
The following year, the pie drop was relocated, and 5,000 people came out for the festivities.
This year, about 50,000 are expected to watch the giant MoonPie drop from its new home atop the RSA skyscraper - the venue Richardson had originally favored for the event.
A state-of-the-art laser show and four synchronized fireworks shows will go off after the pie descends at the stroke of midnight.
The event is now ranked a top destination to ring in the new year and has gotten press from the nation's top news outlets, including the "Los Angeles Times," the "Atlanta Journal Constitution" and the "Pittsburgh Courier."
"It's gotten international attention - all around the world," Richardson said.
And that's what lights up Drummond's eyes as she attends the event every year. Being an animal of the city, she said, her favorite thing is to see people from across the world make their way into her hometown.
"They come in and say, 'We can't believe this is happening in Mobile, AL," she said.
Drummond will be sure to see many people this year, as hotels across downtown are expected to be filled to capacity. That's good news for bars and restaurants, as well.
And so, out of something as small as a MoonPie, Richardson created an economic engine for the entire city in the wake of the Great Recession.
But the councilman doesn't boast of his achievements. To him, he was just doing his job.
"I think it's going to be an incentive to council members to come outside of the box and do something good for their city," Richardson said.
Richardson noted that few council members around the country would propose an idea as provocative as his own, leaving the political risks to the mayor. From this year on, Richardson's New Year's celebration will have a permanent place in the city's budget.
"I believed in it," he said. "And I didn't stop."