Security concerns and costs force another St. Paul festival to cancel

After two years off due to COVID, St. Paul’s most popular summer festivals were poised to make a comeback. But a new post-pandemic reality has put several of the city’s big celebrations on hold again. The perceived threat of the virus may have largely receded, but another threat has taken its place: namely, mounting security concerns and costs.

The latest casualty, the organizers of the Little Mekong Night Market, told the Pioneer Press the anticipated cost of police protection for the July 4 event blew up their plans.

Early last week, they changed their mind. The event — which drew some 30,000 attendees over a single weekend in 2019 — has officially been canceled in light of policing costs, which have ballooned from $20,000 to an estimated $75,000-$100,000.

In other words, policing would take up more than half the event budget.

“We started crunching numbers and getting estimates back and we said, Oh wow! We can’t afford this,” said Va-Megn Thoj, executive director of the association, which is based on University Avenue in St. Paul. “It was the police budget that made us decide not to move forward. … A lot of people will be very disappointed.”

At least four more well-known St. Paul festivals have also canceled so far this year, including the Grand Old Day and Cinco de Mayo parades. It’s not just the increase in violent crime sweeping the Twin Cities that’s led to the need for a greater police presence. Now authorities and event organizers must take into account the reality that large crowds have become targets in other cities.

Pointing to criminal incidents in which drivers killed multiple protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia and parade-goers in Waukesha, Wisconsin, St. Paul Police have effectively professionalized the security regimen around outdoor community festivals. Event planners had traditionally left traffic control to volunteers and security to off-duty officers who set their own rates.

Under a new event-staffing model that rolled out last year, St. Paul now requires on-duty uniformed officers paid police overtime rates, concrete intersection barriers instead of more casual A-frame wooden barriers, and other improvements. That’s driven up costs, and nonprofit festival organizers say they don’t have the money.

But some festival planners say the new security requirements were enacted by the city without discussing the impact of the change in security demands with them. As a result, the organizers of the White Bear Avenue Parade have decided to move the event out of St. Paul this year in a bid to avoid canceling it.

“The parade will be much shorter, and a much smaller scale, but we’re hopefully building on that for future years,” [Lisa] Theis said.

“The general fear of the bad things that could happen have made security tighter and tougher,” she acknowledged. “The trouble is most folks who put on community events, we don’t put them on to make a profit. To include all this extra cost for security and concrete barriers, we just don’t have it.”

Organizers of the canceled festivals hope to discuss finding a balance between the need for heightened security and their financial constraints with city officials in time to reboot next year. But for now, authorities evidently aren’t willing to take any chances given the current realities on the street.