Councilmember questions Aquatennial freebies

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 city fees, and City Councilmember Gary Schiff (9th Ward) asks if that is a prudent decision given the cuts in basic city services, such as police and fire.

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.

"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 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. But he called Schiff's $500,000 figure "a rumor."

Aquatennial sponsors contributed $500,000, not counting triathalon prize money, he said. The city's $109,000 contribution would get a five-to-one return. Plus 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 mayor 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.

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 Friday, 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.

The City Council approved the fee waiver 13-0 June 20 -- including Schiff.