Scott County officials are considering revoking the Minnesota Renaissance Festival's permit to operate after roads leading to the Shakopee site were clogged for miles this fall, causing headaches for fair visitors along with local residents and businesses.
County staff allege that Mid-America Festivals, which runs the Renaissance Festival, knew there would be less parking in 2022 but didn't tell county officials about it. The lease had expired on a parking lot providing 10% of the fest's total on-site parking. Having to wait for a spot led to the long lines of traffic, staff said.
Not informing the county of such a change to operations was one of several alleged permit violations by Mid-America, county staff said at a public hearing several weeks ago.
"All the roads within a mile or two of the Renaissance [Festival], during the busiest times, were a parking lot," Scott County Commissioner Barb Weckman Brekke said. "It became quite a big deal for folks."
Visitors reported two-hour waits to get a parking space, county staff said.
Mid-America denies that any violations occurred, spokeswoman Stephanie Whipps said.
"After seeing and hearing the facts, the county should agree with the Festival's position and keep the longstanding permit in place," Whipps said in a statement.
She noted that even those complaining about traffic "acknowledged the importance of the festival" and said Mid-America is committed to working with the county, local business owners and neighbors to mitigate any traffic issues.
The festival, known as one of the country's largest and most successful Renaissance fairs, was held from Aug. 20 through Oct. 2.
Scott County officials voted to table the matter until the Jan. 17 County Board meeting. The festival, which has been held in its current location since 1973, cannot operate without the county permit.
Festival's pros and cons
At the November public hearing, several residents and small business owners shared the impact the traffic snarls had on their lives as well as how the festival benefits the community.
John Weckman, a resident of nearby Louisville Township who also serves as a township supervisor, said traffic has been "unreal" for several years. Residents couldn't leave their home on weekends during the festival because the roads to leave were blocked by lines of cars.
He suggested the festival "bus them in like the State Fair" to combat the traffic.
Bob Pieper, owner of Patio Furniture Refinishing, said 80% of businesses in Louisville Township shut down during the 2022 festival weekends because no one could get to them.
"The festival itself seems to be an honorable business, but an honorable business does not shut down the rest of the township or a portion of the county for their gain," he said.
Resident Don Regnier said the traffic has caused problems for years but that festival organizers haven't improved things.
"I don't think the county has any other choice but to force [the Festival to make changes]," he said. "You will comply or you won't exist anymore."
Nicole Parker, whose company Royal Armory makes wooden swords and shields to sell at the festival, noted that if the annual event no longer existed "it would be a huge detriment to many people that we employ."
Jim Cunningham, who has performed at the fair for 39 years, said he used that income to buy his home and pay for college and parochial school.
Room for improvement
County Administrator Lezlie Vermillion said county staff confirmed that Mid-America's lease with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community to use the nearby Trail of Terror lot, which has about 2,500 parking spaces, ended in January 2022.
Jim Peterson, president of Mid-America Festivals, said the festival had record attendance in 2022 — about 304,000 people attended compared to 240,000 to 250,000 in years past.
The festival pays more than $1 million in taxes each year and makes many donations to charities and nonprofits, he said.
Peterson contends that parking wasn't the problem and said that the festival has more than enough spots to meet demand, though two of the lots he mentioned aren't included in the current county permit.
He had several ideas to make things run more smoothly next year, including adding stripes to the parking lots to mark stalls, hiring a full-time company to coordinate parking and trying to increase the number of visitors busing in to 30,000.
At the public hearing, Brekke said she was frustrated because many of Peterson's ideas have been suggested before but never implemented.
Several county commissioners at the hearing said they had trouble believing that festival organizers would actually follow through or didn't think Peterson understood the scope of the problem.
The County Board can vote either to revoke the permit or leave it as is, Vermillion said, but any changes to the permit's conditions must be initiated by Mid-America Festivals.
"Everyone who spoke, including the County Board, wants to be [like], 'How do we make this work?' but it really is in their hands," Vermillion said of Mid-America Festivals, which is based in Shakopee.
Brad Davis, the county's planning manager, said Mid-America needs to return in January with a plan in place if they want to keep their permit.
"They need to come back and tell us how they're going to better manage traffic control," Davis said.