As president of the Grand Avenue Business Association, Bob Lawrence is feeling confident that the Grand Old Day parade and street festival will return to St. Paul on June 7. Lawrence envisions a high school battle of the bands, oversize helium balloons, local restaurant booths and maybe a youth circus, wrestling and roller-derby performers.
And to keep the expected 200,000 spectators safe?
According to the city of St. Paul, that will require hiring 57 police officers, at costs that have more than doubled in three years. Grand Old Day’s security price tag totaled $20,285 in 2017, $20,530 in 2018 and $27,974 last year.
This year, policing Grand Old Day is projected to cost GABA $48,700. It’s an expense that has Lawrence wondering if there are any discounts, especially for an event that was almost called off in 2019 due to financial challenges.
“I have no idea how many cops should be here,” said Lawrence, a State Farm Insurance agent and former U.S. Army field medic. “If they say 57, I’m with them 100 percent. But give us a little love and help us out. I’d like to see the city recognize the additional revenue we’re bringing in and give us a little offset.”
‘THE WORLD HAS CHANGED’
Across St. Paul, street festivals are singing a similar tune.
Events that got by for years hiring off-duty St. Paul police officers as independent security contractors are now required to funnel requests through the St. Paul Police Department, which approves security plans and sets staffing expectations.
The changes apply to any events drawing 1,000 or more people to city streets and parks.
They come in the wake of incidents that have targeted public gatherings around the world, such as the mass shooting at a Las Vegas music festival in 2017 and a motorist who drove into a street protest in Charlottesville, Va., the same year.
“Because the world has changed we have to adapt new practices,” said Assistant Police Chief Robert Thomasser. “The police department is planning these events to deal with threats that didn’t exist before.”
The department is not making money from the change — “this does not increase our budget or fund other initiatives,” Thomasser said. “This really has been an expectation of the (U.S.) Department of Homeland Security for these events.”
For some St. Paul events, hiring dozens of city officers at time-and-a-half pay amounts to a budget buster.
Highland Fest, a neighborhood tradition for 36 years, confirmed last weekend that it will not return to Highland Park this year, citing security costs as a significant factor.
Last year the 108-year-old Rice Street Parade didn’t return, but the related street festival was held. This year, the Rice Street Festival is not returning, said Kerry Antrim, executive director of the North End Neighborhood Organization.
“Funding is almost nonexistent for festivals,” Antrim said. “Rice Street, we’re on total hiatus. We have some great sponsors in the North End, but I do think they’re a bit lower. City Cultural STAR grants are highly competitive. You can (receive them) for three years, but you have to match the grant, and after three years you have to take a year off.”
ORGANIZERS CONCERNED ACROSS ST. PAUL
St. Paul Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher said using on-duty officers isn’t just a question of staffing.
The police department made the decision, with the mayor’s support, in part due to liability concerns. Off-duty officers don’t necessarily have access to legal representation from the city attorney’s office in the event of a lawsuit, though they may if an arrest took place or they were engaged in stopping a crime.
Tincher said the increased costs were raised as a concern last year at a board meeting of Visit St. Paul, the city visitors bureau, around the time of the annual LuckyPalooza street party on West Seventh Street.
She said the mayor’s office wants to convene stakeholders such as Visit St. Paul, the Downtown Alliance and the St. Paul Festival Association to take a hard look at the actual costs of putting up police barricades and creating security plans, and to think of solutions.
“Are we effectively using police reserves? Is that a cheaper solution? Would that conversation lead us to a financing source for the city that could be tapped into?” Tincher said.
The police costs are just the latest price increase that festivals face — and it’s an expensive one, said Steve Heckler, board chair of the St. Paul Festival Association. Heckler, who puts on the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, and the Lowertown Blues & Funk Fest, said he’s expecting officer costs for each of his events to go from about $8,000 to nearly $14,000.
“In my mind, this is not one problem, but a barrage of things that have happened,” Heckler said.
In his 22 years of planning the music festivals, he said prices for staging and production have gone up incrementally, but he estimates that costs from the city have more than tripled.
About 10 organizers responded to a questionnaire last year from the Festival Association and “many are having concerns about what their events are going to look like in a few years with these costs,” according to Heckler.
For example, to close down a city street, festivals have to pay for all the parking meters on the streets for the times that vehicles could be parked there. As St. Paul has raised meter prices, that cost has become more significant, Heckler said.
They’ve also seen increases for trash collection, plus new costs to put up concrete barriers at closed streets.
The police department started requiring them after high-profile instances elsewhere of people driving into crowds. Heckler said he doesn’t question the safety need for the barricades, but it’s another cost.
The St. Paul Festival Association plans to seek a meeting with representatives from City Hall and the police department to see if any of the fees can be lowered.
“We love that people can come downtown and enjoy the new restaurants and music and see the venues and how cool downtown is,” Heckler said. “I think the city and the county need to assess the value of these festivals bringing people together and bringing in business.”
City Council Member Rebecca Noecker — whose ward is home to various festivals downtown, on the West Side, in the West Seventh and Summit Hill neighborhoods — said it’s important that fees cover the true costs to the city. Otherwise it would fall to taxpayers.
Noecker said she will be sponsoring an ordinance, brought forward by the police department, that would increase the cost for permit fees to accurately reflect the staff time that police are spending developing security and traffic management plans.
She said she plans to talk to event organizers before finalizing the proposal.
HOW TO COVER THE COSTS?
St. Paul festivals are usually run by nonprofits and mostly free to attend, so organizers don’t have the option of raising ticket prices, Heckler said.
The St. Paul Classic Bike Tour saw their costs for police go from about $21,513 to $38,143 for the 25th annual event in September, said Dorian Grilley, executive director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota.
The Bicycle Alliance used funds from its operating reserve to cover the difference, but that can’t happen every year, Grilley said.
He said they’ll have to see if they can seek slightly more funding from major donors, and they may have to increase the registration fee — which was $44 for adults last year — by $3 to $5 for the 5,000-plus people who participate.
“Nonprofits like ours work tirelessly with a small staff and hundreds of volunteers to bring events, energy, community togetherness, and economic impact to the city of St. Paul,” said Deb Schaber, president and CEO of the St. Paul Festival and Heritage Foundation, which produces St. Paul Winter Carnival and Cinco de Mayo celebrations.
“As expenses increase for our events,” Schaber said in a written statement, “we are forced to make hard decisions about cutting traditional events, and finding unique ways to create revenue.”