Grand Old Day sauntered, strutted and sprang back to life in a big way on Sunday.
Thanks to determined neighbors and last-minute fundraising, the decades-old event beat back plans to skip this year, with thousands of people walking the popular St. Paul shopping and restaurant district.
Great weather gave the attendance a significant boost, as did family-friendly events, said Bob Lawrence, vice president of the Grand Avenue Business Association. But the event’s on-again, off-again storyline also affected its draw.
“That has created a ton of additional attention,” he said. “I think maybe [people] cherished it a little bit more and said, I want to make sure I go.”
In late April, the Business Association — the group that puts on the event — said that the high number of empty storefronts on the street and rising expenses meant the street fair wouldn’t be held this year. A revamped Grand Old Day would return in 2020, organizers said then.
But days later, a handful of business owners and others decided to try to rescue the 45-year-old festival. Their goal: to raise the $100,000 needed by the contractor in a week, via online fundraising and donations from sponsors and vendors. Soon, they had amassed $75,000, enough to move forward with the festival.
Lawrence said Sunday’s event was a “huge, huge hit,” adding that it exceeded his expectations.
The event kicked off with a parade and continued throughout the day with a wiener dog race, live music and other family-friendly activities. Beer gardens with entertainment were packed.
Lawrence expects this year’s attendance topped last year’s 200,000. And he anticipates a profit. Revenue, sponsorships and donations should cover the event’s cost of $200,000, allowing for a $100,000 profit, he said. That’s a welcome outcome in a year when officials would have been happy to break even.
The $100,000 can then fund the association’s administrative costs, employees and other activities.
Sales of $10 wristbands, which are required to get into the areas where alcohol is sold, were up 15% this year, he said.
Brittany Best, owner of Wanderer Traveling Boutique, said the almost gap year was a conversation starter among customers.
“A lot of people coming through said they were just shocked this could be canceled,” Best said. “It was frustrating for me, too. … I pay good money to set up here. It definitely makes me wonder about what will happen next year.”
Despite the chatter, many people said the event felt the same as always. Responses from business owners along the thoroughfare varied — some said sales were up this year while others said the opposite. Many said choosing to be open on Grand Old Day was more about exposure anyway.
Holly Weinkauf, owner of Red Balloon Bookshop and a Business Association board member, said sales were up 25% on Sunday.
“With the information we had and knowing the situation we were in, it seemed like it would be a huge stretch to pull everything together in a short amount of time,” she said. “But what was great was the community stepped up.”
Joshua Paul Richard, owner of Himalayan Java, a coffee shop on Grand, agreed. The community energy to save the event was a perfect representation of what Grand Old Day is about, he said.
“This is the day that St. Paul feels like ‘St. Small’ — you always run into someone you know because it brings everyone together,” he said.
Richard’s initiation to the street fair came about 10 years ago when he was living in a brownstone on Grand.
“I had no idea about it, but I woke up to the sound of a marching band going by,” he said. “I ran outside and joined in, and that was my welcome to this wonderful neighborhood.”
To see the community rally to revive the street fair was proof of its impact, he said.
“I think it took the risk of losing it for people to go, ‘Oh yeah, we really love this,’ ” Richard said.