Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Waste of Minnesota (unedited)

When it comes to big summer festivals, the Twin Cities often comes up short.

There are festivals, but nothing nearly as spectacular as what Chicago hosts every summer. And Stinktown has our metropolitan area trumped, too.

Our big claim to fame, I guess, is the Minnesota State Fair, a 12-day end-of-summer blowout. I can't speak authoritatively, but I often hear the Minnesota fair touted as one of the biggest, somehow. I think the caveat is that by average daily attendance we're one of the biggest. The Texas fair runs longer than the Minnesota fair, I guess, and therefore draws more visitors, but somehow we have more state fair rubes than most every other state. That's what we love here, evidently.

Like other major metropolitan areas we have a "taste" festival. The Taste of Minnesota is typically a handful of days long, around the Fourth of July. It features food, allegedly indigenous to Minnesota, as well as entertainment. It is held in St. Paul and has undergone changes over the years.

I know the festival dates back to the 1980s and use to be on the state capitol lawn. Now it's in another part of St. Paul, a somewhat inconvenient area known as Harriet Island. It moved several years ago.

The event is a corporate entity. In recent years it has changed ownership, and that ownership is trying to make some changes.

Like everything else, Taste of Minnesota depends upon people showing up and overpaying for anything and everything for sale. The festival was free to roam, so you could come watch free entertainment, or just hang around like a hoodlum, and not spend a dime.

Last year the new ownership changed that. You had to pay $10 for access to the grounds, but you also received $10 in food tickets, the currency all vendors must accept for their product. The owners also tried to hike up the level of the main stage entertainment each evening as a drawing card for those who otherwise couldn't care less about a glorified state fair concession stand collection.

New this year: It's $20 to get in during the day, $30 in the late afternoon and evening, and there's no food tickets for your trouble. The owners are banking that by ramping up the entertainment level on the free stage again, people will pay for the show, just as they would at a concert venue. One night the entertainment is 80s rock acts, headlined by Sammy Hagar. Another night its 90s rock, featuring 311 and Offspring. Another night its 90s alt-pop, or whatever you consider Counting Crows and Gin Blossoms.

The problem is that if I'm not interested in the main stage entertainment, I'm going to be hard pressed to pay $30 for access to a bunch of mass produced food products.

The ownership promises a variety of entertainment throughout the day. That's great if you put a high value on the entertainment being offered, a lot of which is music, but if you don't, it has suddenly become a very expensive proposition for a family of four to spend a day at Taste of Minnesota. There's no indication that kids get in for a discount, so a family of four may pay $80 this summer just for access, never mind the $5 soda and the $7.50 hamburgers.

I have a feeling the Taste of Minnesota, something I haven't been to in many years, will struggle mightily this year. Perhaps I underestimate how much people are willing to spend on a holiday weekend just to say they're being entertained, or perhaps I underestimate the draw of the main stage acts. In less than two months, we'll know.

I wish somebody in this town would take a page from Stinktown's playbook and do it right. Stinktown's annual Summerfest, which lasts about 10 days each summer and ends around the Fourth of July, has the right idea. They're not giving away the music, but they offer so much more for the money that it makes the Taste of Minnesota look pathetic. It's almost too big of an event it's so popular.

What this town really needs is a taste of Stinktown.

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