Tired of mounting controversy over unpaid bills and disruption, Stillwater officials on Tuesday could ax their association with the popular but problematic Lumberjack Days summer festival.
The City Council will consider canceling its agreement with the Lumberjack Days Festival Association Inc., adding to the mounting financial and legal problems of promoter David Eckberg.
"I can't get a cup of coffee without somebody asking about it," City Administrator Larry Hansen said of community uproar over Lumberjack Days. "I really think it would be healthy for it to all go away."
Hansen, who initiated a resolution to end the relationship, said he would be surprised if the five-member council didn't vote to cancel the contract.
Eckberg coordinated the four-day festival through the for-profit St. Croix Events production company and a murky and possibly dormant nonprofit board of directors, the Lumberjack Days Festival Association. He has admitted that he owes thousands of dollars to vendors, businesses and school groups. Five complaints to Stillwater police have led to a Washington County Sheriff's Office investigation.
"The level of public disapproval of a continued collaboration with either entity is damaging to the health, safety and welfare of the community," Hansen's resolution reads.
Lumberjack Days draws tens of thousands of people to the St. Croix River each July for attractions such as golden oldies concerts, road races, lumberjack competitions, fireworks and one of Minnesota's biggest parades. The festival has helped make Stillwater a major regional destination, but many residents say it's no longer a hometown celebration.
One resident, Brent Johnson, said he's heard the festival condemned as a "State Fair on wheels" that has lost the small-city spirit. "I don't think the organizers have the city's interest in mind as much as their own profit motive," he said.
Hansen said there is deep disagreement over what type of festival the city should have. New promoters Jesse Kurtz and Bob Hart say they're ready to lead a different, more local festival they would call Stillwater River Days, but they need the City Council's blessing and city permits to proceed.
Other events affected
Changes loom for two other Eckberg-coordinated events, too. The Stillwater Marathon in May looks doubtful, Hansen said, and the Rivertown Art Festival reportedly will be managed by the Greater Stillwater Area Chamber of Commerce.
The decision to put the Lumberjack Days contract to a vote represents a reversal from the city's earlier position that it wouldn't act until County Attorney Pete Orput had considered possible criminal charges against Eckberg, who owns St. Croix Events.
The Sheriff's Office said the investigation could take more than three months, Hansen said. A more urgent issue is securing an agreement with RES Specialty Pyrotechnics of Belle Plaine to make sure the city's fabled July 4 fireworks show happens.
To do that, the contract with Lumberjack Days must be canceled because it authorizes Eckberg to produce the holiday show.
Meanwhile, complaints continue to emerge over unpaid bills from Lumberjack Days., known for popular concerts by famous yesteryear bands such as Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Guess Who, America and Chicago.
"We've had a great musical heritage with this," Eckberg said recently, beginning with the Kingston Trio in 1994 and in recent years including more contemporary sensations such as the Jonas Brothers and the Wallflowers.
The latest came from Civil War re-enactors in New Ulm, Minn., who fire vintage cannons at the city's July 4 fireworks show. They told police Eckberg hadn't paid them $1,500 he had promised for the 2010 event.
Also, the St. Croix Lions service club wasn't paid $300, said treasurer Mac Barliss. "I think it's going to be a long line ahead of us," he said. "Promises don't pay bills."
Eckberg said storms and flooding caused him losses at last summer's festival but said he will pay his debts.
The last year the Lumberjack Days board filed a request for nonprofit status with the Minnesota Attorney General's office -- in 2008 -- it reported liabilities of $893,992.
Hansen said he doesn't know who's currently serving on the nonprofit board but said the city dealt with Eckberg and directly billed St. Croix Events for services, rather than the contracted nonprofit board.
"To us they've essentially been synonymous," he said.
Several people once listed as members of the nonprofit board haven't responded to requests for interviews. Downtown business owner Chuck Dougherty said recently he was an "active" board member but didn't know who else was involved. "I'm not going to comment because there are legal things going on," he said.
Before the City Council approved the contract in 2007, Hansen said, he and City Attorney David Magnuson examined Lumberjack Days finances and found substantial losses.
"When we reported on what we found nobody would believe us," he said. "We knew they were carrying a lot of debt."
Many downtown business owners say Lumberjack Days scares away local residents and drives down profits.
"If you need snow fencing and police tape, it's no longer a family festival," said Sherri Hopfe, a restaurant owner who chairs the 30-member Mainstreet Stillwater Independent Business Alliance.
Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles