The Stillwater City Council made it clear: Permitting a local business group to sponsor a summer festival is risky business, meaning that people who promised they would fund three days of fun in July had better step up.
With that, by a 4-1 vote, the council gave its blessing to the Locals, the promoters who will move Stillwater into a post-Lumberjack Days era with a smaller, more homegrown event.
The festival will include two crowd favorites — a parade and fireworks — and several new touches intended to commemorate the city's logging history.
Stillwater has waited more than two years to emerge from under the cloud of Lumberjack Days, a once legendary logging festival reduced to compost in 2011 over allegations of financial improprieties. The longtime promoter, David Eckberg of St. Croix Events, will go to trial in February on 10 felony counts of issuing worthless checks and theft by check.
Nervousness over past mistakes was apparent as the council debated whether to grant festival permits to the Locals or three other promoters with more experience.
Cassie McLemore, one of the Locals, said she and her partners took to heart comments by Council Member Doug Menikheim, who said he couldn't vote for their inexperience and wanted them to prove him wrong.
"Our response to that is we have to start somewhere and, you know, great things come from taking a risk," she said. "This year especially we are going to be scrutinized putting on an event. We definitely feel pressure, but we feel confident in our abilities, our organizational skills."
Menikheim, who cast the dissenting vote at the Nov. 7 meeting, said the city needed a proven promoter to manage hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses.
"I love you dearly, because Stillwater has taken an important place in my life, but I'm not sure you're the best ones to do it," he told the Locals. "We need to put people who can succeed into this situation, and this is putting the city at serious risk. I will challenge you to prove me wrong."
The tentative name for next summer's festival is Log Jam, although McLemore acknowledged that some people in Stillwater wish to bring back the Lumberjack Days name.
However, McLemore said she personally opposes returning to that "name recognition" — Eckberg owns the rights to the name anyway — because the Locals have their own plan.
"It's been a couple of years since that whole debacle, different group, different name, and I think we have separated ourselves from it," she said. "The only thing we have so far that we share is the same weekend in July."
The Locals have five principal members: McLemore, of Cuckoo Productions, is a Stillwater resident who's produced events such as Summer Tuesdays and Harvest Fest. Erin McQuay, also of Cuckoo Productions, is a grant writer and event coordinator — Cruisin' on the St. Croix is one of hers — and a Stillwater resident. Brad Glynn, a founding member of Lift Bridge Brewery in Stillwater, is a career project manager. Paul Creager, of Square Lake Productions, has 11 years of organizing experience with the Square Lake Film and Music Festival. And Shawn Smalley, of Smalley's Caribbean Barbecue in Stillwater, is a native of the city.
None of the Locals has a direct connection to Lumberjack Days, McLemore said.
History will figure prominently into the July event because of 80th anniversaries for the city's series of summer festivals and the Washington County Historical Society. Next year also is the 100th anniversary of the closing of the original Stillwater prison.
The four council members who voted for the Locals — Ted Kozlowski, Tom Weidner, Mike Polehna and Mayor Ken Harycki — all expressed concern over the risk at granting the festival to a less-experienced promoter. Other applicants were Mid-America Festivals Corp., which sponsors the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, FILO Productions Inc. and Genius of Fun Events.
"We may never have the ability to bring back quality people from FILO and Mid-America if you fail in a couple of years, and I hope you don't," Harycki said.
Weidner said he was prepared to take the risk.
Polehna cautioned that he didn't want the new summer festival to fall apart for lack of community support. "All of the people who e-mailed us about having a local festival, they need to get off their hands and support a local festival," he said. "That's been my concern about this. Those people need to get off their hands and do something."