Aquatennial moments

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July 30, 2002 // UPDATED 1:28 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Sam Grabaski
Sam Grabaski

Or, how running Downtown's festival can develop lightning reflexes

According to science, the main reason why a person's hair turns gray is that cells in the follicles stop making pigments that give hair its color. The shut-off date for this is pre-set in each of us. The nicotine in cigarettes can accelerate the process. So can the stress of navigating Downtown's many closed streets and detours in a car, wishing your stockbroker would step off the curb.

When the dust settles on the first year of the Downtown Council's operation of the Aquatennial Festival, I'm confident that everyone will think it was successful. There isn't any actual dust to settle, of course, because of the frequent torrential rains. We will someday forget that a new phone system, installed to make things easier, failed just before the Aquatennial, taking the entire computer network with it. We will soon see the humor in the 200 e-mail messages marked urgent that arrived four days late. We will appreciate the carton of hair tint issued to all staff as a precautionary measure against premature graying.

Experience is thought to be the only teacher that gives the test before presenting the lesson. Topping the list of experiences for me was the cancellation of the Minnegasco Torchlight Parade. A continuing series of lightning cells began to flash near the parade route. The only group to pass was a large field of runners (Mayor R.T. Rybak and Senator Roger Moe among them) spurred on, it seemed, by the fear of the electrical storm not far behind them.

Among the 100 unseen units were 50 state flags, delivered in person by the mayor of Chisholm, Minnesota. Unfortunately, they were now freshly mounted on 50 aluminum lightning rods. More than 30 Minnesota Olympians had assembled to march, including one Special Olympian who soon delivered gold-medal hugs to console anyone who needed one. The many costumed characters, mascots and the Royal Ambassadors Court were treated to an impromptu dance party, safe from the rain, supplied by the ValleyFair Band.

The fireworks, sponsored by Target Corp., were the best ever. Did you know that it takes about 90 rain-free minutes to uncover all of the equipment and wiring necessary to fire off a display of that magnitude? Or, that it costs three times more to remove an un-triggered fireworks display than it does to install it? Or that the Coast Guard must give an "all clear" signal that the landing area for sparks is clear of unauthorized river traffic? Or that when atmospheric conditions are just right, you can hear those fireworks all the way to Stillwater? Or that when the first computer fails, which it did, that it takes less than 45 seconds for the backup to take over, which it did.

Aquatennial sold more of the metal Skipper Pins than ever before, but we're a long way away from the sales of 50,000 plastic pins experienced in the 1950s. Staging Aquatennial events from the TCF Holidazzle Warehouse made things run much more smoothly than before. Mayor Rybak was terrific, running also in the "mini-triathlon," judging sand castles and spreading community spirit. The red, white and blue stripes painted on Hennepin Avenue for the parade were a great new touch.

The new group formed to continue the royal and ceremonial traditions, the Aquatennial Ambassadors Organization, got off to a great start. Full-strength beer, in bottles, was added to the Best Buy Hennepin Avenue Block Party for the first time. The Downtown Council's staff and the 1,000 volunteers did a great job.

The goal this year was to try to break even financially. Unfortunately, it costs money to set up for events, cancelled or not by lightning. The new cost-saving measures will be repeated next year. The unification of Downtown events with over 50 events in the neighborhoods and parks proves that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The Official Celebration of the City of Minneapolis continues into the future in pretty good shape.

By the way, the reason that cigarettes may cause premature graying is that scalp's blood vessels are constricted by absorbing chemicals such as nicotine. Standing on a parade route in a torrential rainstorm does not appear to reverse this process.

Sam Grabarski is president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, a group of business leaders.