The future of Open Streets in Minneapolis is in question, with the city saying it will end its contract with the nonprofit that has orchestrated the pop-up festivals.
Open Streets has been running since 2011, closing streets to cars to create small festivals in Minneapolis neighborhoods. Sunday saw an Open Streets event draw thousands of people to the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood for food, music, vendors, a dunk tank and a play structure in the middle of Cedar Avenue.
"I love things like this — you walk around, do whatever you want," said University of Minnesota graduate student Mary Kate Wolken, who is from Kansas City. "It's stuff like this where I could envision a future here, instead of returning home."
After two more events scheduled for this fall, the city will not renew its contract with Our Streets Minneapolis, the advocacy group that has organized the festivals, said Jenifer Hager, Minneapolis Director of Transportation, Planning and Programming. She cited the fact that Our Streets asked for city funding to continue events in 2024.
"Our Streets has made a request for additional funding, which we can't accommodate," Hager said Monday. The organization responded to a 2018 city request for proposals that specified there would be no funding for the organization that put on the festivals, she said.
Our Streets Executive Director Jose Zayas Cabán said the future of Open Streets events is in doubt without the city's help.
Zayas Cabán said he requested funding from the city but had yet to hear back from city officials about his request when he learned the city would end its contract with Our Streets. He said he first learned the partnership was in question from a newsletter sent by Second Ward City Council Member Robin Wonsley on Friday.
Wonsley said she was briefed last Thursday by Public Works staff, who she said told her the Open Streets events no longer aligned with the department's goals.
Hager said she understood the contract's end to be a mutual decision: The city could not offer the funding Our Streets sought without running afoul of the original request for proposals for the Open Streets events, and Our Streets said they would not be able to support the events without city funds. Our Streets did receive $50,000 in 2021 and $20,000 in 2022 to cover the cost of portable toilets at festivals. That money was from federal COVID stimulus funding, a city spokeswoman said.
Zayas Cabán said he was blindsided by the city's decision last week: "We have not yet had a single meeting about 2024."
Hager and Zayas Cabán did agree that the two sides have been renewing their agreement year to year, rather than for multiple years at once.
The Department of Public Works has helped with the infrastructure of the events — closing streets, bringing in police and emergency medical responders to staff the festivals, working on food permits with vendors and facilitating trash pick-up.
The city would continue to offer those services to Our Streets should it continue to arrange the Open Streets programs — or to whoever takes on the program, should Our Streets bow out, Hager said.
Zayas Cabán said his group needs funding from the city to keep organizing Open Streets.
"Imagine having a wedding, and asking the caterers to do the food for free," he said. "We need a different kind of partnership with the city to make [Open Streets] more sustainable."
Our Streets asked Public Works to consider $851,000 to cover Our Streets' expenses for five events in 2024 — primarily the time it takes the organization's staff to reach out to neighborhood businesses and community leaders to draw local vendors and people to events.
Zayas Cabán noted the city has seemed more open to proposals to spend on activating Nicollet Mall. One city task force recommended spending $750,000 in 2024 on events to make the downtown street livelier.
"We specifically go into communities that are marginalized," he said of Open Streets events, in contrast to the city's central business district.
Zayas Cabán said sponsorships or philanthropic funding are not particularly sustainable ways to fund the festivals' expenses.
Our Streets asked the city for $100,000 to support Open Streets events in 2023, according to a settlement agreement Our Streets signed earlier this year, in which the group agreed to register some of its staff as lobbyists. That request did not end the group's contract for 2023.
Hager said city officials hope Open Streets events will continue, and that the city will keep offering services to support future festivals. However, she said, Public Works plans to shift its focus to events with a more explicit emphasis on walking, biking and public transit — such as community meetings to discuss neighborhood transit needs, or group outings on new bus lines or bike paths.
Wonsley said she hopes the city will find a way to continue supporting Open Streets — and to pay Our Streets, the group she said has made the events successful, much like the city pays other vendors who provide services. As the council begins budget deliberations, Wonsley said, she hopes there could be some funding for Open Streets.
"I want to make sure the city is able to continue on supporting a viable event series that has helped to strengthen the soul of our city."