Future of large events such as Grand Old Day remain in limbo

By Jane McClure

After a tumultuous couple of years, the Grand Avenue Business Association (GABA) is hoping to regroup with the goal of announcing a new board of directors at its annual meeting on November 8. Business owners hope new leadership will provide GABA with a fresh start after months of board turnover, belt-tightening and bickering.

As of now, GABA has no board members, no staff and no contractors. Its website has also been taken down.

Other organizations have offered to help with the upcoming annual meeting and getting GABA back on its feet. That includes the Summit Hill Association (SHA) and Highland Business Association (HBA).

“We’d like to see GABA succeed,” said SHA executive director Monica Haas. The district council is currently working on an updated comprehensive plan for the Summit Hill neighborhood. The state of GABA and how neighbors can support Grand Avenue businesses have emerged as two of the plan’s top issues.

HBA executive director James Farnsworth said his group stands ready to offer office space and other resources to GABA. “We understand that GABA has basic structural issues to work out,” he said. “GABA is clearly in a rebuilding mode.”

Farnsworth, who worked for GABA a few years ago, said it may make sense for other neighborhood business associations to collaborate on space, staffing and other resources. He now chairs the Southwest Business Coalition. It is a consortium that includes local chambers of commerce, district councils, arts organizations and other business groups, including GABA and the HBA.

 

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Grand Old Day
Shelbey Geldon and Jace Manthe juggled ice cream sandwiches while navigating the crowd that turned out on June 2 to celebrate the 2019 Grand Old Day that almost wasn’t. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Board members step down

A sometimes raucous online GABA meeting on October 5 that involved about 20 people ended with a few business owners saying they are done with the association. Others want to keep it and its signature public events going. However, they know that doing that during the pandemic will present a challenge.

“Do we want to continue? Do we want to have an annual meeting and elect a new board?” asked meeting moderator Jimmy Fritz of the Wedding Shoppe. He urged association members to continue to move forward. He also said they may need to consider a future where there may not be large-scale events such as Grand Old Day or Grand Meander.

These past two years were especially tough for GABA. Tight finances meant letting staff go and canceling Grand Old Day in 2019. Saint Paul’s first rite of summer was quickly revived with public support and around-the-clock work by board members. Contractors were hired to help with the association’s marketing, social media and other duties.

Then allegations of fiscal mismanagement dating from 2014-2016 rocked the association. A federal investigation was wrapped up in September 2019. It  concluded that the case did not meet the minimum standards for prosecution.

“We might not have another Grand Old Day for the next couple of years,” Fritz said. According to him, that may shift GABA’s focus from events to more business networking and promotions.

Grand Old Day gets canceled

This year began with ambitious plans for member recruiting. Planning was launched for a revamped Grand Old Day, but the pandemic forced the cancelation of the festival. That hit GABA’s bottom line hard, since the association typically nets about $100,000 from the event. The association currently has less than $10,000 in the bank. It is unclear how many dues-paying members it even has at this point.

Losing Grand Old Day as its primary fundraising source was devastating for GABA. “We might not have another Grand Old Day for the next couple of years,” Fritz said. According to him, that may shift GABA’s focus from events to more business networking and promotions.

If there is no Grand Old Day for a while, GABA will have to look at its dues structure, said Scott Fares of Wet Paint. He noted that this year’s dues were partly intended to promote more businesses during Grand Old Day.

However, some GABA members said it will be a challenge to find new board members. That is because many small-business owners are consumed with just trying to keep their doors open during the pandemic.

“It’s really hard to find time when you’re running a business,” said former GABA secretary Cory Sullivan of Mosaica Hardsurface. “And it’s not worth it when you feel like you’re being attacked.”

Bob Lawrence, a State Farm Insurance agent, served as GABA’s president during the cancelation and revival of Grand Old Day in 2019. He said he and other board members put in 20 hours of work or more each week to keep the association going.

“It became exhausting and overwhelming,” Lawrence said. “I won’t be involved with GABA going forward. A small segment of members cause 99 percent of the problems.”

“It became exhausting and overwhelming,” Lawrence said. “I won’t be involved with GABA going forward. A small segment of members cause 99 percent of the problems.”

Board leadership leaves

Over the past several months, two board presidents resigned. The latest board leaders, Beverly Brending and Dawn Huffman, stepped down this fall. Brending said it is not financially feasible for GABA to hire staff or contractors and rent an office now. Two contractors were let go this summer, and leases for the office and office equipment were canceled.

Brending and Huffman held an online meeting in September. At the meeting, they presented an update on GABA, but they did not allow anyone else to speak. That sparked outrage among some association members.

Brian Wagner of Coldwell Banker Realty stepped down from the GABA board during the summer, but still chairs its Events Committee. The committee oversaw a scaled-down version of the annual Paws on Grand. It is now weighing what to do with the Grand Meander holiday celebration.

“We must be very focused on what we want from GABA,” Wagner said. He urged the group to work on rebuilding trust and being inclusive. He also said GABA may have to be more creative with future events.

For now, some GABA members said they are fine with having fewer, smaller events and even canceling Grand Old Day in 2021.

“Who wants it to be the super-spreader event of the year for Minnesota?” asked Tom Johnson of A. Johnson & Sons Florist. “Realistically, I don’t think (Grand Old Day) is happening next year.”

Applications to serve on the GABA board will be taken through October 15, followed by 10 days of voting to fill 13 open seats by October 25.

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