The little boy who loves trains was too fixated on the “choo choo” ride just beyond the entrance at Columbia Heights’ annual Jamboree to notice the new $2 admission fee, fresh fencing around the carnival’s perimeter or sign banning bikes, skateboards and dogs.
But the changes were not lost on 7-year-old Jacob Rondo’s mom, who wondered what was afoot.
“Maybe it will make it safer,” Sarah Mohs said.
That’s the idea, Jamboree organizers say. They attribute the changes to growing concerns over rowdy crowds and teen troublemakers. Problems in recent years have included arrests for disorderly conduct, drugs, fleeing police and an incident involving a gun.
As Minnesota heads into its season of fried food and festivals, some cities are rethinking their approach to hosting carnivals, retooling their makeup or dropping them altogether.
Across the metro, some local festivals are taking a note from bigger fair events, ramping up security through admission fees, fencing, bag searches at entrance areas, a larger police presence and even horse patrols. Others are moving away from carnivals in favor of teen- and kid-specific activities.
The changes come at a time when the Minnesota State Fair, the state’s marquee summer event, has beefed up its safety measures with increased security staffing, screenings for contraband and video surveillance.
“It’s not just festivals,” said Robert Johnson, president of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, a nonprofit trade group for carnivals, circuses and vendors. “Unfortunately, we live in a society today where we have to be on guard and alert and aware at all times.”
The reasons for forsaking or adapting carnivals vary from shrinking volunteer bases to financial concerns to changing crowd tastes. But festival organizers cite a shared hope of offering safer events.
“The main goal is to try and get families back with their young kids, which is what the carnival is all about,” said Nick Novitsky, vice president of the Columbia Heights Lions Club, a group sponsoring the Jamboree. “It’s a tradition.”
This year marked the first without a carnival at Brooklyn Park’s annual Tater Daze festival, an event paying homage to the city’s potato heritage.
City officials say they dropped the carnival in favor of an expanded area with inflatable play structures for children, as well as a lineup of teen activities, including a talent show, henna art, food challenges and sports contests.
“We were trying to have more family-friendly events,” said Marc Ofsthun, the city’s Tater Daze staff liaison.
Police added that youthful mischief-makers have also been a concern at past carnivals.
Richfield called its carnival quits at the city’s annual July 4th celebration several years ago for security reasons, said Heather Lenke, the event’s committee president.
At ’49er Days in Fridley — named after the year Fridley incorporated — the festival’s move from a longtime, visible location about eight years ago dealt a body blow both to its attendance and carnival. Organizers repeatedly have tried to revive it without success.
“I’m not sure if it’s lack of visibility or cost of the rides, but the two together do not make it a profitable venture for some of these carnivals,” said Sue Johnson, a parks and recreation staffer in charge of the event.
Dipping revenue also factored into Brooklyn Center’s decision to cease its carnival more than 20 years ago at Earle Brown Days, city officials say.
The end of a traditional carnival at South St. Paul’s Kaposia Days offers a similar story, with insurance costs largely to blame, said Steve Mankowski, president of the event’s board of directors.
“We were just too small of an event to have it,” Mankowski said. “It wasn’t profitable for either one of us.”
Other cities have tried to provide more security to make carnival crowds safer.
Robbinsdale started charging admission and put up fencing at its Whiz Bang Days carnival to curtail bad behavior. But profits dwindled, so event organizers held the final carnival in 2012, said City Manager Marcia Glick.
So far, tighter security has paid off at Crystal Frolics, that city’s annual carnival. Anyone younger than 18 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian after 4 p.m. A $3 entry fee includes a free ride and wristband and helps pay for security at the entrance, where guests hand over bags for quick searches. Police also stroll the grounds.
“I think we have it down pretty good,” said Lynn Haney, Frolics president. “We have not had any real problems for the last few years.”
Columbia Heights officials are hoping for similar results at the Lions Club Jamboree, where adults now pay a $2 fee before reaching the gooey sweets and games of chance beyond the fence. The new charge has sparked some grumbling, they say, but families among Thursday’s small evening crowd had few complaints as drizzly skies gave way to sunshine.
The thought of rain worried Jacob more than any extra dollars spent by his mom. Mohs said Jacob and his little sister, Evelyn, had been watching workers assemble the rides all day, fretting about the weather.
Besides, Mohs added, $2 is a small price to pay for a shot at a summer train ride in the conductor’s seat.