Five years after it began as a way to draw attention to revitalization plans for the area, Richfield's Penn Fest is gearing up for a Sunday celebration that's bigger and more elaborate than ever.
Penn Avenue will be closed from 63rd to 76th Streets from noon to 5 p.m., courtesy of an Open Streets grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. In addition to the music, free food and store sales that have always been part of the celebration, the grant means this year's Penn Fest has a health emphasis as well, with a 5K run, a mini-farmer's market and fitness classes.
"It's an excellent community builder as well as being very good for [the] Penn Central [area]," said Jim Topitzhofer, Richfield's recreation services director.
Penn Fest was started five years ago by residents who were concerned that the Penn Avenue commercial strip near 66th Street was looking worn. A revitalization study for the area had been done, and organizers wanted to give it some publicity.
David Gepner, one of the organizers of that first effort, said the area is still challenged. Penn Avenue is wide and intimidating for pedestrians and bicyclists to navigate. Along much of Penn, sidewalks are flush to the road as traffic whisks by. In some places the only feature between Penn and storefronts is the sidewalk and a parking lot.
That's gradually changing, Gepner said, as property owners upgrade their buildings. Sidewalks have been widened in places, shrubs and other landscaping has been added, and buildings have been spruced up with new signs and decorations, like awnings over windows. The city put benches and daylilies near its water tower and fire station.
"Revitalization is incremental," Gepner said. "The idea behind the plan is to make the avenue more inviting, and make it more pleasant to walk and shop."
Now, Penn Fest is viewed as a chance for businesses and people who live in the area to interact, creating a sense of community and neighborhood identity. The neighborhood's strength is the many local businesses that are there, from longtime residents like the Homestead Pickin' Parlor and Fireside Pizza to newcomers like the dog kennel Woof Central and Ralph's Shoe Service, which relocated to Penn Avenue from Southdale this year.
"These are locally owned and not part of a chain," Gepner said. "We've encouraged them to participate."
Even after five years, not all businesses are on board.
Some businesses complained about having the road blocked off for five hours, and others declined to participate. But many businesses will take part, with Lund's offering free root beer floats, a beer garden at the Lariat Lanes bowling alley and 66-cent sales at businesses like Arc Value Village and the Flowerama florist shop. Restaurants will sell food, there will be five music stages and square dancing, zumba dancing and belly dancing.
A popular car show and crafter's booths that used to be part of Cattail Days, a city festival that died last year, now will be part of Penn Fest.
Richfield is one of Blue Cross and Blue Shield's "do towns," trying to get residents to be more active. In addition to the 5K run, there will be a kiddie parade, soccer games and a place to shoot baskets. The $10,000 grant is helping to pay for the expense of closing the street and for some of the musical events, Gepner said.
If people walk the mile-and-a-half of closed road and feel tired, they might not have to walk back. Gepner said Penn Fest is arranging for pedicabs "to transport tired people back to the other end."
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan