Renowned Twin Cities event planner Paul Ridgeway -- the impresario who coordinated the 1990 visit of then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to Minnesota, the one and only Metrodome Super Bowl, and the drive to save the Twins from contraction -- is leaving some hard feelings among a trail of large and small unpaid bills.
Among those holding Ridgeway's IOUs include members of the Southwest High School football team who parked cars for him in June during the high-profile U.S. Women's Open at Interlachen Country Club in Edina.
The team still awaits payment of $11,000 that it had planned to use to buy footballs and cleats for players who otherwise couldn't afford the $100 to $150 shoes. It represented more than half of the team's fund-raising goal last year, said coach Sean McMenomy.
"It was like a kick in the gut. We have no [separate] budget," McMenomy said. "It's a way for us to get money for scholarships. That money goes pretty quick."
The line of Ridgeway's unpaid creditors is getting longer. Just last month, CitiMortgage Inc. got a $114,000 court judgment against him for an unpaid credit card debt.
Ridgeway says he'll pay everyone what he owes -- eventually.
"This is a very painful time," the normally upbeat and effervescent Ridgeway said in an interview Thursday. "This has never happened before. All of our vendors will be paid."
That would be welcome news for the firms that worked for Ridgeway when he produced the AgNite extravaganza for the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council during the Republican National Convention last September. The $1 million event, which highlighted the state's food industry, drew 5,500 and featured the classic rock music of Styx.
"I don't like not getting paid," said Tim Steinberg, a photographer who was hired to shoot photos of the event. "I went with a broken leg. They owe me $900."
Robert Bernier of Tradition Valet provided 40 people to park cars that night and says the company is still owed more than $4,000. "We've been trying desperately to get that money but we've been getting jacked around every which way," Bernier said.
In early November, his seven-year-old company received a letter from Ridgeway's attorney, Rollyn Samp of Sioux Falls, S.D., where Ridgeway's company, Ridgeway International, is incorporated. The letter stated, "This small business, like many in America has faced serious financial adversity in the past several months after many years of having a great financial track history. The economic downturn has been devastating to the special events business. ..."
The letter said Ridgeway hoped to obtain financing within 60 days to pay off his creditors. But the deadline passed and the bills remain unpaid.
Credit market blamed
Ridgeway blamed the upheavals in the credit market.
"In 23 years, we've never been in a position where we owe people or vendors," Ridgeway said. "Historically, we have a great track record. But when an economic downtown comes, the first thing cut out of corporate budgets is special events."
"Some clients ended events and some substantially cut event spending," Ridgeway said. "One client cut back by 60 percent. We couldn't make money on that."
Ridgeway began his event-promoting career in politics. He organized college students for the 1972 presidential campaign of Hubert Humphrey and planned travel logistics for the White House during Jimmy Carter's presidency. Ridgeway spent six years under the tutelage of entrepreneurs Curt Carlson and his daughter, Marilyn Carlson Nelson. His voice cracked when he talked about the never-give-up attitude of Humphrey and Carlson.
In 1986, Ridgeway went on his own and developed some high-profile clients. He counted the NFL as a client for 15 years, though that relationship recently ended.
"I will not be going to the Super Bowl this year," Ridgeway said. He declined to say more about the end of the relationship, citing a confidentiality agreement with the football league.
Ridgeway's clients also have included NASCAR and Microsoft.
His privately held company doesn't disclose its revenues, but Ridgeway did acknowledge that its staff of seven is about half the size it was in the last 18 months.
Ridgeway said the company is reinventing itself. "Will this be a bigger, better company? The answer is yes," he said.
He and son Paul Ridgeway Jr. are heading an investment group trying to turn a 530,000-square-foot vacant building in Shakopee into a wholesale and retail "Asian World Marketplace." But their plans are on hold while the city awaits a $14,000 payment toward an environmental review of the project.
Ridgeway's friends say he has the drive to make it happen.
"Not only will he make everyone whole, but this [Shakopee plan] will be the biggest thing in all of Minnesota and everyone will forget about this little hiccup," said Minneapolis restaurant and entertainment entrepreneur Steve Schussler, one of the founders of the Rainforest Cafe who is not among investors in the project. "His whole life is on the line, his whole reputation."
Staff writer Bob von Sternberg contributed to this article
David Phelps • 612-673-7269