When crowds round the gravel road leading up to the Minnesota Renaissance Festival’s main gate, they’re met with magic: rising turrets marked with flags, the mast of a pirate ship, gnarled trees stretching to crisp autumn skies.
But first, there’s the pit.
Festivalgoers lean as far as they can over a massive berm, marveling at its size (“It’s like the Grand Canyon — in Shakopee!”) and peering over the cliffs at the festival’s edge.
The mine, which produces construction aggregates, is moving closer to the festival, making it more difficult to reach and leaving questions among employees and patrons about how much longer this fantastical world can remain untouched.
Jim Peterson, who owns the company that runs the festival, said he wants to keep open lines of communication about its future.
“At the same time,” he said, “you walk the precipice of not wanting to be alarming.”
In recent years, Malkerson Sales Inc., which owns the land housing the Renaissance Festival and the mine, has joined forces with Bryan Rock Products Inc. on a project to mine and sell silica sand, which is used in hydraulic fracturing, often called fracking.
An environmental-impact statement for that project is planned to be completed by early next year.
Bruce Malkerson, who owns the property with his sister and three brothers, said they’ve long known that mining would encroach on the festival. And now, after a lull during the recession, construction is in full swing.
To date, he said, they’ve probably mined more than 500 acres. He declined to disclose how much minable land remains.
Anna Dailey has attended the festival at least once a year since she moved to the Twin Cities in 2009.
She rounds up her four children for the hourlong drive, armed with money carefully saved to buy a treasure from one of the vendors there.
“It’s a big deal,” she said. “It’s the last thing we do before school starts.”
But last year, they started to notice the mine encroaching on the parking lot. And this year it was worse.
“It was quite a trek,” she said. “It had taken over the whole front third of the parking lot. You had to park way back.”
The festival has offered shuttles in the past to carry fairgoers from their cars to the entrance, but this year they’re more prevalent. Those who choose to walk come up against a safety berm, made of boulders, dirt and barbed wire, which this year is bigger than ever.
Still, all of that disappears inside the gates.
Caleb McEwen has performed at the festival for years as a member of a three-man troupe called the Danger Committee. Its shows, which involve lots of hair-raising knife-throwing by McEwen, draw consistently large crowds and die-hard fans who return year after year.
McEwen has noticed the mine’s effects over time — namely, the growing berm and shrinking parking lot.
“But then look around in here,” he said, seated on a bench before his first show Saturday morning. “There’s zero evidence.”
‘If it moves, it moves’
Founded in 1971, the festival was originally located in Jonathan, a section of Chaska. It moved shortly after that to its current location in Shakopee, on the land that houses the mine.
The festival is run by Mid-America Festivals Corp., which also puts on the annual Trail of Terror Halloween event at the same site. The company’s lease is up at the end of 2016, at which point it may move. Peterson said he’s on the lookout for other sites, though it’s possible it will continue where it is.
Mark Goldfarb, who flies in from New York every weekend to man a booth where he crafts and sells custom leather boots, said he’s not convinced that the festival will move. He imagines it remaining “a cool little island” against the backdrop of the mine, he said.
“If it moves, it moves,” he said. “I’ll just build a new booth.”
For now, the fact that the festival’s future location is unclear brings uncertainty for the community of people who, for several weeks each year, ground their lives at this spot to make it come alive.
Carr Hagerman started out at the festival as a teenager in the 1970s. He now manages the hundreds of performers, dashing around the grounds with a scratchy Walkie-Talkie and a careful plan for keeping the magic intact.
As crowds closed in on the main entrance early Saturday morning, waiting for the ritual cannon blast and opening of the gate, Hagerman joked that the encroaching mine is an attempt to push him out after all these years. He’s a central figure in the festival’s close-knit community, where he said strong ties enrich the experience but make change difficult.
“This whole place is based on nostalgia for another time,” McEwen said. “But everything changes. Everything has to evolve and move on, and that’s what’s happening here.”