Ruth Craig put everything she had into her booth at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. For two summers, she enlisted her father, uncle, sisters, nieces — anyone who would help — to build the 400-square-foot structure.
"I sunk my life savings into my building," she said, "and the only reason that it made sense for me to do it is that I would have an asset to sell down the line."
But Craig and others in the same position say they learned just this year that an expiring lease could push the annual event to a new location in 2017. Information about a possible move has been sparse, they add, and vendors are worried they'll have to take a financial hit in order to follow wherever the festival goes.
Vendors build and own their own booths, typically costing $10,000 to $50,000. But they do not own the land beneath them. The festival grounds are on a tract of land owned by Malkerson Sales Inc., which since the 1970s has leased the space to festival management company Mid-America Festivals Inc.
But Malkerson also owns a nearby gravel mine, which in recent years has gnawed closer to the festival grounds. Plans are in the works to expand it even further, to mine for silica sand, which is used for hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as "fracking").
Vendors say they were told the current lease would last until 2023.
"We were very clearly told that it was a 15-year lease," said Charles Knutson, who's owned a booth with his wife since 1995.
When vendor contracts went out this year, though, they discovered that the lease is actually expiring at the end of 2016. Employees learned that the festival might move once the lease is up, but got few details beyond that.
"Without any information about the new site, I can't even talk to my banker about a loan to help me move my building," Craig said.
Jim Peterson, who runs Mid-America Festivals, said he hasn't shared much information yet because there simply isn't much to say.
"It's ongoing and we have some indications," he said, "but we're somewhat in the embryonic stages of going through this project."
And the length of the lease?
"I thought I had communicated that," he said.
'Like moving a house'
Even with more information, moving one of these booths is a formidable task — if it's possible at all.
"It would be like moving a house," said Jeff Morris, who bought a $10,000 booth from an outgoing vendor last year.
In the event of a move, Peterson said, the company would help vendors and take the transition on a shop-by-shop basis.
"Clearly, as you walk around, some of those shops are very movable, and for the most part built as temporary structures," he said.
Vendors were encouraged to rebuild with mobility in mind after a 2011 fire that destroyed a total of eight booths, Knutson said.
But he and others with older booths — some of which are not up to current building codes — may be out of luck.
"Certainly, my booth could not be moved," Knutson said. "And unfortunately, I don't make enough to rebuild it to current building codes."
Personal, financial losses
Knutson and his wife spend the year traveling to festivals around the country. They make a living selling historical games, with about a third of their business coming from festival sales.
The couple started out as festival performers in 1989, and Knutson said they still have a strong connection with that community. They provide water behind their booth for performers to drink during the day, and sometimes partner with them to demonstrate the games they sell.
"We definitely have a close connection to the community, as it were," Knutson said. "So if we're not able to continue, we will definitely miss that end of things."
For many vendors, being unable to continue at the festival would also mean losing income.
Delayne Hostetler, who's sold pen-and-ink and pencil drawings at the festival since 1986, relies on those sales to support her throughout the year.
"I know a lot of folks who depend on this show for a huge portion of their income," she said. "And replacing this show with something else — it takes time to do."
Though she wants to follow if the festival moves, she's nervous about the financial implications.
"I want to go out kicking and screaming. I don't want to go out like this," she said. "But I can't seem to wrap my head around how that move would work for me."