How much is the Aquatennial worth?

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July 7, 2003 // UPDATED 10:57 am - April 30, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Councilmember asks if city should waive fees for civic party in tough budget times

The Minneapolis Aquatennial -- the city's flagship festival including 100 events from Downtown fireworks to the Lake Calhoun milk-carton boat races -- gets a free pass on tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars in city fees. City Councilmember Gary Schiff (9th Ward) asks if that is a prudent decision given recent police and fire department cuts.

"We can't afford to be throwing parties when the city is in a financial crisis," Schiff said. "If it is a festival on its deathbed, maybe we can't afford to subsidize it anymore."

The exact city costs for Aquatennial road striping, traffic control and security are unclear. Schiff suggested a figure of $500,000 at a recent City Council committee meeting; a separate city licensing analysis put the figure at $109,000, though key staff said the number isn't reliable.

The festival has seen financial hard times; the Aquatennial's non-profit organization got into debt, and the Downtown Council took it over in 2001.

Sam Grabarski, Downtown Council president and CEO, said Schiff was asking a responsible question. However, he called Schiff's $500,000 figure "a rumor."

Aquatennial sponsors contributed $500,000, not counting triathalon prize money, he said - a five-to-one return on the city's $109,000 contribution. Plus, Grabarski added, the Downtown Council was working to recruit more volunteers to replace city staff.

"It is the city's only official festival," Grabarski said. "It is probably an investment councilmembers and the mayors can justify if their hard and soft costs are kept to something less than $100,000."

The licensing department wrote a one-page report estimating the cost at $109,000, but John Bergquist, assistant city coordinator, was not confident the analysis went into enough detail, declining to release the document.

"I don't think it is accurate," he said.

He said $35,000 of the $109,000 went for the Downtown Block Party, which wasn't an Aquatennial event, though it occurs on the festival's opening day.

Bergquist said he couldn't remember a year when one or two City Councilmembers didn't raise the same questions Schiff raised.

Bergquist is a member of the Aquatennial's Ambassador program, a spin-off group that helps promote the festival nationally and internationally, he said. "It keeps Minneapolis on the map," he said.

The festival starts July 18 and would have had little time to adjust its budget if the city decided to impose fees. Grabarski said he did not know if the Aquatennial would break even this year.

On June 20, all 13 Councilmembers voted to waive fees -- including Schiff. The Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee, which Schiff chairs, will review the issue July 16 at the request of Councilmember Barbara Johnson (4th Ward).

Johnson praised the Aquatennial for branching out into neighborhoods and said she thought the city should invest to support it.

"I don't want to push an event . . . into bankruptcy, then we wouldn't have the event," she said. "If they start making money, we will be the first in line."