A city survey didn’t offer much direction, but business owners say another big Lumberjack Days-style event isn’t wanted.
If there’s a ghost of past Lumberjack Days, it’s this: Stillwater’s disagreement over summer festivals lingers like a sleepless night.
Findings from a recent city-commissioned survey show what most people already knew — that most residents want a new summer festival to replace Lumberjack Days. Just what form that event should take, however, remains a matter of interpretation.
“I’d love to see it, but I’d love to see it run well,” said Ted Kozlowski, whose Stillwater City Council ward includes downtown. “What we need to focus on is making Stillwater the coolest downtown experience in Minnesota.”
Lumberjack Days had been a well-known summer festival, drawing regional crowds to a four-day event that included major outdoor concerts on the shore of the St. Croix River. A spate of unpaid bills and criminal charges against promoter David Eckberg ended that era, which often drew complaints from residents and business owners for its beer-soaked reputation.
The City Council declared a moratorium on summer festivals last year and wanted a survey of residents before committing to big new events. The council will meet March 19 in a work session to discuss next steps, said Community Development Director Bill Turnblad.
“I don’t think anybody wants the big Lumberjack Days of recent history. That was a big mess,” Kozlowski said. “It was a great St. Croix Valley event for a few days. Then on the weekend it turned into a great big party in downtown Stillwater.”
He acknowledged difficulty in determining what comes next because the $15,000 survey, by Readex Research, lacked a clear community consensus.
It found that about half of the 1,105 respondents wanted a festival smaller than Lumberjack Days, and about half wanted something about the same or larger. Four of five respondents think Stillwater already has “about the right amount” of events.
“I read it as people are looking for something smaller, more intimate,” said downtown business owner Vienette Olson. “Given the percentage, it doesn’t look like there’s a mandate to have another Lumberjack Days.”
Many of the survey respondents mistakenly assumed that big events are good for business, but smaller shops often didn’t benefit, said Olson of Trade Winds Spice Co. After past Lumberjack Days, some merchants said they in fact lost business.
“A lot of the shops have talked about something small, more contained, that brings out the locals to celebrate the town,” she said. Any attempt to “reconstitute” Lumberjack Days wouldn’t receive a positive reaction from many downtown business owners, she said.
The survey found that Lumberjack Days was less popular with longtime residents, and nearly half the respondents thought the festival was too big. But a majority agreed that it was “an important part of the Stillwater experience” and said it was good for local businesses. Other findings:
• Kids’ events, fireworks and food vendors’ marketplace outranked a parade as the most favored events. Least popular was a boat race, chess tournament and “concert by big name acts.”
• July remains the most popular month for a major festival. August ranks second.
• Two of three respondents prefered a mix of event sizes in Stillwater, including one large “draw” and several smaller events intended for local residents.
• Most residents favor free use of city parks by nonprofit organizations during a festival. They also want more city staff services allocated to events, and free parking in city lots.
• Several festival events should be held downtown, such as fireworks, an art fair, lumberjack exhibitions, a water show, a car show and larger concerts. But respondents were less particular about locations for some other events, such as smaller outdoor concerts, outdoor movies and music, running and bicycle races, an ice cream social and a parade.
• Overall inconvenience of past events was rated low, but traffic congestion and lack of parking were considered the biggest problems in the past.
• In the past four years, July 4th fireworks drew 80 percent of community residents. Lumberjack Days drew 76 percent. Nearly all residents — 94 percent — attended at least one of several Stillwater events that included Summer Tuesdays in Lowell Park, Harvest Fest and the Nature Valley Bike Race.