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Cottage Grove ambassador changes follow feud over royalty program

Disagreements over pageantry and promotion led to the formation of a new Cottage Grove ambassadors program and the dissolution of a long-standing royalty organization.

Cottage Grove Strawberry Fest organizers are gearing up for their first-ever Scholarship Ambassador Program this year, just as the Cottage Grove Royalty Scholarship Program is waving farewell.

Cottage Grove Royalty organizers said they were making changes to their program to coincide with their 30th year, but decided that their show will not go on. They said Strawberry Fest organizers did not allow them ample opportunity to discuss their new program and ways the two groups can work together better and instead simply formed their own ambassador program, which closely resembles Cottage Grove Royalty.

Cottage Grove is not big enough for two royalty programs, so the existing organization reluctantly is choosing to turn the stage over to Strawberry Fest, said Dasha Jessen of the Cottage Grove Royalty program.

"At that point somebody has to be a bigger person and say we're not going to put one city through this, put our girls through this," Jessen said.

But Strawberry Fest organizers said they started their own ambassador program because they did not have control over Cottage Grove Royalty and that group's future direction was unclear. Also, Strawberry Fest leaders say, Cottage Grove Royalty did not adequately promote the local festival last year as it traveled to other communities. A key problem for Strawberry Fest was that the festival's name did not appear on Cottage Grove Royalty's float last year, unlike earlier years.

Strawberry Fest decided in January to start its own ambassador program.

"We wanted it to be something that benefited our city - and the festival," said Lori Olsen, Strawberry Fest committee president who previously was involved with Cottage Grove Royalty.

Strawberry Fest leaders say they did not intend to force Cottage Grove Royalty to fold and they believe the programs could have coexisted.

Similarities and differences

To local residents whose only encounter with Cottage Grove royalty is at the Strawberry Fest parade, there may be little difference with a new organization this year. The festival will crown seven ambassadors. Local businesses will sponsor contestants. The winners will receive college scholarships or an educational savings bond. A coronation will be held during the festival in June. Cottage Grove Royalty planned to raise money for the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program that supports military families. Strawberry Fest organizers say they are interested in doing that as part of their program.

Strawberry Fest ambassadors do not have to be from Cottage Grove, but must live within School District 833 boundaries - just as was required with Cottage Grove Royalty.

There are differences. Miss Cottage Grove is being replaced by a Cottage Grove Strawberry Fest Ambassador Queen. Cottage Grove Royalty had "adopted" a local road for cleanup; Strawberry Fest ambassadors will "adopt," or clean, a local park. The Strawberry Fest ambassador program will not be part of regional or national pageant competition. The Cottage Grove Royalty program planned this year to affiliate with the Miss Minnesota International pageant.

More girls get interested in the program if they have the opportunity to advance beyond their community royalty and participate in larger pageant contests, said Tammy Pederson, Cottage Grove Royalty director.

"If we're not connected to something, it's kind of like a dead end," Pederson said.

The new ambassador program will be part of the Strawberry Fest organization. Cottage Grove Royalty operated as its own nonprofit organization, but held events in conjunction with Strawberry Fest.

Small disputes

For some, promotion was a problem. In past years Cottage Grove Royalty had use of a city truck and storage for the float it enters in community festivals. The float used to include signage to promote Cottage Grove's Strawberry Fest. That did not happen last year, said Christy LaValle, a Strawberry Fest volunteer.

It did not happen because Strawberry Fest did not decide on a sign design, Jessen said.

Strawberry Fest and Cottage Grove need that advertising and promotion when ambassadors travel to other cities.

"It brings people here that might never see us or hear about us," LaValle said.

Promoting Strawberry Fest elsewhere could be good for local businesses, Olsen said, because people may be inclined to visit Cottage Grove during the annual festival and spend money while they are in town.

There were other flashpoints. Strawberry Fest organizers did not like when Cottage Grove Royalty asked the community festival to be a paying sponsor. And Cottage Grove Royalty volunteers were upset that they had to pay $70 for Strawberry Fest T-shirts worn by their royalty.

"It is stupid little stuff like that, but in the long run it does add up," Pederson said.

Volunteers from both groups said a royalty program is important for young girls. They develop communication skills, improved self-esteem and long-lasting friendships.

"This program can change a little girl's life," LaValle said.

Jessen said the public may not understand a royalty program's importance to the girls and families involved. It also can have a big impact on the community, she said.

Strawberry Fest organizers are already taking applications for the new Ambassador Program, to be part of this year's festival June 16-19.

"We're really excited about this program," LaValle said.

Meanwhile, Cottage Grove Royalty turned its March 12 Mardis Gras Ball into a "Masquerade Farewell." The fundraiser for royalty scholarships and the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program will be the organization's final event.

"This will be our girls' farewell," Jessen said.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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