Festival this summer in Stillwater? Probably not

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 10, 2012 - 9:27 PM

The City Council is expected to declare a moratorium on the debt-ridden Lumberjack Days.

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Jordan Cummings, 11, practiced log-rolling at last year’s Lumberjack Days, but there is likely to be no such event this year.

Photo: Leah Millis, Star Tribune

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It soon may be final -- no community festival in Stillwater this summer.

The City Council, tired of controversy, is expected to declare a moratorium later this month on new proposals to replace the debt-ridden Lumberjack Days. The decision would stall a frantic campaign by two local businessmen to muster support for a "family-friendly" festival called Stillwater River Days.

A resolution to be voted on at the March 20 council meeting would drive a final nail into the Lumberjack Days coffin, burying a longtime festival known for its big-name "golden oldies" concerts but also for drunken behavior and persistent debt.

"I have no doubt it will pass," said City Administrator Larry Hansen.

Four City Council members present at last week's meeting said as much, but they didn't take formal action on a proposal by Bob Hart and Jesse Kurtz to start an alternative festival this summer. Hart and Kurtz, of Valley Promotions Inc., told council members they have been working to start a community festival that would more closely resemble the city's "Play Days" of long ago than the troubled Lumberjack Days.

"We want to bring this back down to the way it was," said Hart, an Oak Park Heights business consultant. He and Kurtz, a former sheriff's detective sergeant who owns a Stillwater security business, said they have a festival ready to go but need city permits to proceed.

"We have talked to a lot of people who want to get involved in this," Hart told the City Council, arguing that it would be a mistake for Stillwater to suspend a summer festival this year. "We're not in this as a career. We're here to protect a longstanding Stillwater tradition."

But Mayor Ken Harycki said the city needed time to review public preferences for a summer festival because opinions vary. "Truthfully, for six years we've been caught in a crossfire up here between all entities and groups," he said. "I'm not in a rush to jump into this."

Council Members Doug Menikheim, Mike Polehna and Jim Roush agreed. The fifth member, Micky Cook, wasn't at the meeting.

"I hear people saying we need the time off, we need to heal," Menikheim said.

Lumberjack Days, historically Stillwater's headline event, ended this winter when the City Council voted 5-0 to end its contract with the promoters. David Eckberg, owner of St. Croix Events, which has coordinated Lumberjack Days since 1994, is under investigation for possible financial fraud.

Eckberg has not been charged with a crime. However, numerous vendors and nonprofit organizations that worked at past Lumberjack Days festivals complained that Eckberg hadn't paid them. He also owes the City of Stillwater for police and fire protection.

Hansen said it is doubtful the city would work with Eckberg again, even if the Washington County Attorney's office should clear him of criminal wrongdoing.

"There's still been a real damage to the city's reputation," Hansen said.

Kurtz and Hart said they had collected more than 300 signatures on a petition supporting their festival this summer. Hart said Stillwater had better get a new festival branded in people's minds before a new St. Croix River bridge is built at Oak Park Heights, closing the Stillwater Lift Bridge.

"People who used to go to Stillwater are going to sail right on by," he said.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles

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