When the Taste of Minnesota rolled into Waconia last summer, Waconia Brewing’s operators, who were still building their brewery and taproom, were on the outside looking in.
This year, the fledgling brewery will be part of the action at the food and entertainment festival, serving up a “collaboration beer” just developed with two other west metro small-batch breweries. Waconia Brewing partner Bob DeLange believes being part of “The Taste” will bring lasting exposure to his business.
“There was an excitement in town last year,” he said. “It’s great for a small community getting that many people to come out and visit your location.”
City officials and businesses in Waconia, a city of 12,000 on the western edge of the Twin Cities metro area, are gearing up for the Taste of Minnesota July 2-5, hoping the event provides a boost for local merchants and answers the question DeLange says he’s often asked: “Where the heck is Waconia?”
Preparations for the event, which typically draws up to 100,000 people, are taking place in far different circumstances than last year. It landed then in Waconia on short notice when flooding ousted it from St. Paul’s Harriet Island. It was a big change for an event with east metro roots going back to 1983 on the Minnesota State Capitol grounds.
This year, the venue will be less of a scramble, and more of a welcome advantage.
Several Waconia-area bars and restaurants that didn’t have time to sign up as vendors last year now will participate. Like DeLange, the head of the Waconia Chamber of Commerce thinks the four-day event will be an opportunity to introduce more people to the city, which is about 30 miles west of Minneapolis.
“We began lobbying for it to come back the day after it ended last year,” said Kellie Sites, chamber president. “The Fourth of July can be a slow time here, with people leaving town to go to their cabins. But many of our businesses saw a big jump in business last year.”
Sites and others said the exact economic benefits are difficult to measure; festival attendance is free for kids under 12 who come with an adult and free for adults until 1 p.m.
The festival is held on the Carver County Fairgrounds. City businesses can easily feel a ripple effect because the fairgrounds are “right smack dab in the middle of town,” said Mayor Jim Sanborn.
“I expect to be superbusy,” said Dan Precht, a co-owner of Hoppers Bar & Grill. Last year, he saw an influx of customers from farther-west communities like Lester Prairie and Stewart. This year he’s wondering if more east-metro residents will make the trip.
Precht’s business will be a Taste vendor for the first time this year, but he thinks some event patrons will find their way to his establishment, about eight blocks from the fairgrounds. “People may be looking for another food choice, want to get out of the heat or catch a game on one of our TV screens,” he said.
Waconia’s two hotels, which also fill up during the Carver County Fair in early August, have been booked solid for several weeks. City Administrator Susan Arntz said she recently got a call from an outstate colleague asking if he could stay at her home while in town for the festival.
Helping people get there
Arntz said some planning has centered on helping visitors navigate their way into town.
“There’s a pile of road construction going on this summer,” she said. Much of it is on certain stretches of Hwy. 5, a key artery in Waconia. Arntz said the city, event organizers and the Carver County Sheriff’s Office have met to discuss ways to alert drivers via social media and signage to direct people into town for the festival and to parking.
Planning also has involved providing bus service. “That’s one of the things we learned last year, needing to address our transit infrastructure,” Sanborn said. “We don’t normally have bus service here.”
Taste organizers and the chamber worked with SouthWest Transit to provide bus service from SouthWest’s park-and-ride stations in Chaska, Chanhassen, Eden Prairie and from 4th Street and Marquette Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. Fare and schedule information is being promoted on social media and on SouthWest, Taste and chamber websites.
While merchants close to the fairgrounds may feel the most immediate impact of Taste spillover, Sites said others further out could benefit in the long run. “People could drive by our golf course [the semiprivate Island View Golf Club], learning that we have this one with a view of Lake Waconia,” she said.
Sites said some festivalgoers may discover the Waconia area is home to three wineries that will be among this year’s 27 food and beverage vendors.
‘We had to go back’
Taste General Manager Linda Maddox said she came close to canceling the festival last year after Harriet Island became unavailable.
“We searched so many different locations in the east metro and there was always something,” she said. “Either we couldn’t get the permitting done or the size wasn’t right.”
A tip from the operators of carnival rides at the festival led Maddox to check out the Carver County Fairgrounds.
“When were done last year, we felt like we’d found a new home,” she said. “Everything turned out so well we felt like we had to go back.”