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The annual Heritage Days festival brings hundreds of area residents to downtown St. Paul Park to take part in a weekend full of activities. (Bulletin file photo)

Future of Heritage Days up for discussion, city seeks citizen input

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Cottage Grove Minnesota 7584 80th Street South 55016

 Should St. Paul Park's annual Heritage Days festival continue?

That's the question asked of St. Paul Park residents in a recently posted questionnaire on the city's website.

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After Jim Domeier, the event's key organizer, announced his retirement earlier this year, the city was forced to re-evaluate not only the direction of the festival but also its future.

Each year, the three-day festival shuts down Broadway Avenue and invites area residents to walk the main street, beer in hand, and take in the activities and socialize late into the evening.

Once a city-run event, control was handed over to volunteers after the League of Minnesota Cities cited insurance concerns.

For most of the past decade Domeier headed up the annual event, including the royalty component. However, without clear direction for 2014, the St. Paul Park City Council did not allot its usual $10,000 to the Heritage Days fund during recent budget discussions.

"We haven't cut the funding for Heritage Days, we just don't know what we're going to do yet," Mayor Keith Franke said in an interview. "Without Jim, who has been doing it for a number of years, we're not sure of which direction to take it. We didn't allot the money because there is no definite place to allot it."

Police calls up

While the lack of an organizer is at the root of the festival's uncertain future, it is clear that some festival-goers' behavior has raised concerns. During the 2013 event, which took place Aug. 16-18, St. Paul Park Police Chief Mike Monahan said there were about double the number of police calls compared to 2012. Among the problems documented in more than 30 police reports were assaults at and near downtown bars, public intoxication and drinking outside the designated area on and near Broadway.

Franke said he recognized the correlation between the number of police calls and proximity to several bars, but he was adamant about keeping the festival on Broadway.

"Historically, Heritage Days is designed to give a bump to our local businesses," he said. "We do not have a large mecca to draw from.

"But I don't want to see it turn into something that isn't conducive with our city," he added. "I don't want it to just turn into one big party."

As the owner of two downtown businesses, Park Cafe and Franke's Bar, Franke said keeping the festival on Broadway isn't a financial ploy for him, but rather an opportunity to give other downtown businesses a boost.

"To be honest, I lose money during Heritage Days," he said. "My regulars don't come to Park Cafe because they can't get down here. And I own the smallest bar on this strip. I don't make even close to the amount that the other bars do. Financially, (the location) is not a big deal to me."

While the popular Saturday night street dance was permitted to run later this year, organizers actually shut it down earlier than planned due to the crowd.

Council member Jennifer Cheesman said anytime alcohol is mixed with a popular outdoor event, overindulgence is not atypical.

"Given the beautiful weather we had this year, it's not surprising that things got a little out of hand," she said, offering "better oversight from bar staff might help, meaning that perhaps they could pay closer attention to the patrons they're serving and simply refuse to serve an obviously intoxicated individual."

The suggestion, Cheesman added, was not an accusation of bar staff allowing patrons to become overly intoxicated.

Festival alternatives

Franke said he has thought about moving the event to a nearby park or allowing festival goers to only drink inside bars or a designated beer garden as ways to lower police calls. However, he said, patrons might feel rushed to drink.

"I think that we would have more issues if you're having people always going in and out of bars," he said. "You would still have people drinking. And if someone in their party wanted to leave, they would feel rushed and drink faster. I think to drive down police calls we have to work with the people and with police to come up with a plan to see what can be done."

Monahan, who did not cite specifics, said he does have ideas for change and "adjustments to make the event safe and enjoyable for the community" and plans to present them during future workshop sessions.

Cottage Grove's Strawberry Fest and Newport Pioneer Day both allow alcohol, but drinking is limited to certain areas of the host parks. Neither city reports police activity similar to St. Paul Park's during Heritage Days.

Also up for discussion in St. Paul Park is the incorporation of more family-friendly events, an addition Franke said he wants to see for next year.

The questionnaire will be posted for the remainder of the month and St. Paul Park residents are urged to provide their input. With only a handful of responses received, Franke said the majority would like to see Heritage Days continue.

"I think we are at a turning point with the discussion regarding Heritage Days and I want to take into consideration all the information and make an informed decision," Franke said. "I want to do what's right for the people of St. Paul Park more than anything else. I don't want to be the mayor that killed Heritage Days."

The Heritage Days questionnaire is at www.stpaulpark.govoffice.com/

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