Friday, Feb. 23, 2007 | 7:03 a.m.
Facing heavy financial losses and teetering on the verge of canceling its annual St. Patrick's Day Parade two years ago, the Las Vegas Sons of Erin believes it has turned the corner in dramatic fashion.
Under corporate sponsorship, this year's event has blossomed from a one-day block party into a weekend-long festival March 16-18 that is expected to generate $20,000 for charity.
By comparison, the event lost $22,000 three years ago when it was held in downtown Las Vegas - even after attracting a record 30,000 spectators.
Event organizers say they did not need to be hit over the head with a shillelagh to realize they had to reverse the parade's fortunes.
"We were on the verge of extinction," Bob Feeney, festival director, said. "We had lost money five out of six years and needed to do something."
In 2005 they moved the event to Henderson and have not looked back.
Reflecting the organizers' new philosophy is the very title of this year's event: the 41st annual Coldwell Banker Wardleys St. Patrick's Day Parade. The real estate company paid the Sons of Erin $5,000 for the naming rights.
Larry Abbott, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Wardley and a vice president of the Sons of Erin, said his company decided to become the parade's first corporate sponsor to keep the community event afloat.
"Insanity is doing the same thing every time and expecting different results," said Abbott, recalling the years when members went into the event with the defeatist attitude that they were going to spend - and lose - a pot of gold on a requisite parade.
So the parade organizers have reinvented the event, cut costs and increased revenue sources.
For instance, the beauty contest to pick a Rose of Tralee has been dumped in favor of a carnival and a festival and crafts fair featuring the likes of face painters and glass blowers.
Food concessionaires, who used to pay between $50 and $100, will now be charged $500 for a booth, Feeney said.
In addition to landing their first corporate sponsor, event organizers have enlisted a handful of resorts to enter floats in the parade and otherwise participate.
For the downtown Las Vegas parade, the Sons of Erin shelled out several thousand dollars each year to hire off-duty Metro Police officers for security and traffic control.
Henderson's Cultural Arts and Tourism Department, on the other hand, will pay for off-duty Henderson Police officers to work the event, and will provide use of the town's new downtown outdoor events center. Admission to the event is free, but vendors will pay to operate booths.
In 2005 the Henderson parade, in a rainstorm, drew 6,000 spectators. Last year 20,000 people lined the just-under-a-mile route on Water Street from Ocean Avenue to Victory Road to enjoy the festivities.
"The parade is being better supported by the community because it is being held in a community setting and not on a tourism corridor as it was for so long," said Bud Pico, Henderson's program manager.
The parade's 120 entries include floats, bands, horses, clowns, bagpipers and Elvis impersonators. Entertainer Carrot Top will serve as grand marshal. The parade will start at 10 a.m. on March 17.
The post-parade entertainment, including 20 hours of free concerts, is being produced by John Stuart, longtime producer of "Legends in Concert" at the Imperial Palace.
The Sons of Erin also found that sharing the event's sparse profits with a handful of charities diluted the overall effect. This year the group has selected a single beneficiary, the Ronald McDonald House of Greater Las Vegas, which provides housing for families of children who come here for medical treatment.
"By doing a festival this year, we are making this a much more child-friendly, family-friendly event," Abbott said. "It won't be just a bunch of us old Irish guys getting together and drinking beer. Although we will be doing that too."