St. Paulites once used Harriet Island for public bathing until pollution in the Mississippi River created too big a stink. A century later, city officials are still trying to clean up the island's image. Their latest attempt: the ambitious River's Edge Music Festival.
Staged by Live Nation, the world's largest concert promoter, the inaugural fest is shelling out $3 million (out of a total budget of $4.8 million) to bring two dozen bands, including headliners Tool and Dave Matthews, to Harriet Island on Saturday and Sunday.
The deep-pocketed promoter expects to lose perhaps $1 million. But it sees a long-term opportunity because the Twin Cities lacks a signature outdoor music event such as Seattle's Bumbershoot, Chicago's Lollapalooza or the Austin City Limits festival in Texas -- just the kind of tourist attraction that St. Paul is hoping for.
"Minneapolis/St. Paul is a great place to be outdoors during the summer, and there was not a substantial outdoor concert venue," said Mark Campana, Live Nation's co-president of North America concerts. "We saw the market as having very, very robust ticket sales. We saw it as having strong radio. And you've got a lot of music lovers."
Harriet Island has been something of a white elephant since the failure two years ago of its signature event, Taste of Minnesota. Free events such as the annual Irish Fair draw big crowds to the grassy downtown park along the Mississippi River, but when Taste tried to upgrade its music lineup -- and charge a significant admission fee after decades as a freebie -- people stayed away.
St. Paul officials are betting the involvement and clout of Live Nation will make the difference. They struck a five-year deal in December that includes the promoter contributing $50,000 annually for July 4th fireworks on Harriet Island.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman is bullish on River's Edge, saying it will strengthen the city's growing reputation as a music magnet.
"River's Edge is such a signature event that it will kind of anchor the big-concert/festival scene in St. Paul," Coleman said. "And it will enhance the other [music] things we've got going," including the Concrete & Grass Festival and Twin Cities Jazz Festival, which draw 5,000 or so to Mears Park downtown.
And city officials love the bottom line because St. Paul is "not contributing anything in terms of out-of-pocket costs" for River's Edge, according to Jake Spano, the city's project manager for the festival.
Lighting to transform the site
A destination festival that pulls fans from out of state can't be built in a year, however.
"This is an investment year," Campana said. "We're not going to sell out. It's not a disappointment; it's just the reality. I expect that we'll be up over 50,000 [people for two days]. It'll take probably two or three years to get it to [a profitable] level. I think the guys at Lollapalooza will tell you that it took them till Year 3 to show a profit. Coachella [in Southern California] talks about three years."
To build a destination festival, a promoter must establish brand identity. And that takes more than big-name stars.
"The big questions are: How good is the site and do people enjoy it?" said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert journal Pollstar. "It's about all the other things that go into the site -- sculptures, fountains, Ferris wheels. Coachella, which is in the desert, lights the trees and the entire site and creates an atmosphere to make it a friendly place to go."
That is part of Live Nation's plan for Harriet Island. The $1.8 million production budget includes four stages, laser lights and environmental lighting that "will give it a different feel," Campana said.
The big bucks, though, go to the bands. Dave Matthews commands $1 million or more for a festival performance. By comparison, the top act at Taste of Minnesota in 2010, Sammy Hagar, got $150,000. Taste tickets cost as much as $30 while River's Edge is $65-$90 for one day, $110-$140 for both.
Ups and downs on island
History shows that crowds up to 50,000 will go to Harriet Island for music. It happened in the late 1980s at the RiverFest series with Whitney Houston and Heart and in the early '90s with New Kids on the Block and Lollapalooza, which in those days was a traveling festival. And on a good day, Taste would draw 40,000.
There are challenges in producing concerts there -- from bringing in electrical power, equipment and toilets to parking and simply finding the place, which is across the Wabasha Bridge from downtown.
"It's not like it's a right-hand turn off the freeway," said longtime Twin Cities promoter Randy Levy, who stages two of Minnesota's largest music events, We Fest and Soundset. "It's difficult to get to, but not impossible. And it's not like there's a big parking lot right on the grounds. But Harriet Island has done big business for some events."
River's Edge will run free shuttles from downtown parking facilities. Also, several St. Paul bars, including O'Gara's and Shamrocks, will bus patrons to Harriet Island. Nice Ride Minnesota has a bicycle station at the site and will operate a valet service for concertgoers who ride their own bikes.
St. Paul singer/songwriter Martin Devaney would like to see River's Edge do well -- both for civic pride and because he manages a downtown record shop (Eclipse) that could pick up extra business from festivalgoers. But he's taking a wait-and-see attitude.
"There is a bit of an identity crisis for these types of events," he said. "This lineup isn't focused [stylistically]. Tool and Dave Matthews are in very, very different worlds. I'm not planning on going. There wasn't enough to get me to spend that kind of money. Hopefully, Live Nation will give it a few years and work out the kinks."
Twitter: @jonbream • 612-673-1719