Finding ways to defray costs while keeping community festivals and other civic events safe is a balancing act these days for Saint Paul officials, police and event organizers. City Council members discussed ideas on April 20 on how to help those festivals return in the wake of several canceled events this summer.
One idea the council intends to pursue is considering the events to be economic development tools and to draw on some city resources earmarked for that purpose. The council also plans to work more closely with Visit Saint Paul to promote and assist community events, and to continue using Cultural Sales Tax Revitalization (STAR) funds for financial support.
Some parades and festivals that were canceled over the last two years during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic are being canceled again this year in light of higher police and other security costs. The latest to announce a cancelation is the Little Mekong Night Market on University Avenue. Organizers told news media that their police costs climbed from $20,000 to an estimated $75,000-$100,000 this year.
However, deputy police chief for community engagement Stacy Murphy said those figures are incorrect. While Night Market organizers did reach out to the Police Department, a detailed plan and estimate were not prepared. The department’s estimate was closer to $30,000 for the two-day event, according to her.
Police typically work with event planners on security needs, including street closings. A variable for event security is whether alcohol is served, Murphy said. An event with alcohol requires one police officer for every 250 people. Without alcohol, it is one officer per 500 people.
Saint Paul parades in the past had wooden barricades or volunteers in parked vehicles to block cross streets. Now concrete barriers are required.
Prior to 2020 the Police Department did not charge the full cost of providing security for events. Organizers were told that would change in 2020 before the pandemic cleared the event calendar.
Another consideration Murphy and the council discussed is whether taxpayers should pay the costs for community events. Saint Paul in the 1980s and early 1990s had a modest festival fund that event organizers could draw on. The fund was dropped due to budget cuts. Later, the city provided technical help from consultants.
The lone city funding assistance remaining is from the Cultural STAR program, which relies on the city’s extra half-percent sales tax. Festivals have been awarded STAR funds in the past, but they must compete against dozens of other arts and cultural groups. The program also limits how often a recipient can be awarded funding.
Many neighborhood festivals have also run up against the loss of longtime sponsors and business supporters. Highland Fest used to receive support from Ford Motor Company. It and other festivals also relied on support from locally owned businesses, many of which are still struggling to bounce back from the pandemic.
Council members said they appreciate the concerns about higher event costs, but agreed there is a need to provide security. Lowering those costs could mean shortening or cancelling parades, or moving events off of streets and into parks.
“Unfortunately, due to violence we have to do more to protect people,” said Ward 3 council member Chris Tolbert. He said event organizers need to work with the city on creative solutions.
“We need these festivals back,” said Ward 7 council member Jane Prince. “They’re important in building community.”
— Jane McClure
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