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Is tall ship festival too tall of an order for Two Harbors?

The city tries to navigate planning, financial and safety concerns.

Canal Park in Duluth was packed with people during the 2016 Tall Ships Festival
The ship canal in Duluth's Canal Park was packed with people enjoying the Parade of Sail at the start of the Tall Ships Festival in August 2016.
File / Duluth News Tribune
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TWO HARBORS — The Festival of Sail is facing headwinds with less than six months until its North Shore debut.

The festival, formerly known as Tall Ships, could bring 100,000 visitors to Two Harbors from Aug. 4-7. An event of that scale has prompted concerns by city staff, divided the City Council and worried residents. A Facebook post circulating among residents calls it a “Ship Show.”

For the event to happen, the city must apply for and obtain a special event permit from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to use the state agency’s waterfront property along Agate Bay.

But doing so would put the liability on the city, and during a special meeting held Feb. 7, city staff urged the council to hold off applying for the permit because of so many unanswered questions. Councilors will again consider submitting the permit in a meeting Monday.

“As administration, I don’t think that we feel approving it and pushing this DNR contract through at this time would be appropriate,” Miranda Pietila, the city's finance director and interim city administrator, said during the Feb. 7 meeting.

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“This is by far the largest event to ever take place within the city,” Pietila said earlier in the meeting. “There are considerable amounts of resources needed to make this a safe and successful event.”

City attorney Tim Costley said the draft special event permit was the first Festival of Sail document he had seen.

He questioned why the city is being asked to submit the permit instead of the event planner. If the planner were to get the the permit instead of the city, it would relieve the city from liability.

“Because if we can avoid the liability, then we should,” Costley said. “I’ll do whatever you guys want to do, but if you’re going to take responsibility for all that property and you don’t have agreements with whoever is running this program, that makes no sense.”

In an email to the News Tribune on Friday, Kevin Johnson, the Two Harbors-area supervisor for the DNR's parks and trails division, said the agency prefers the city be named on the permit.

“It is a much more straightforward process to grant approval to a local unit of government for a large event like this,” Johnson said.

Agate Bay.
The public parking lot at Agate Bay in Two Harbors, where the Festival of Sail will be held if it can get the needed Department of Natural Resources permit. The breakwater is in the background.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The permit was drafted by festival coordinator First Day Events, which the News Tribune first reported was incorporated by Mayor Chris Swanson’s daughter, Ashleigh Swanson , 20, just before he urged the council to pen a letter of support for the potential of bringing the festival to town last fall. Its registered office had been the Swanson family home in Two Harbors until Wednesday, when Ashleigh filed to have it moved to a law office in Minneapolis.

Ashleigh Swanson did not respond to an email from the News Tribune on Wednesday asking why the office moved.

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The Festival of Sail will be produced and promoted by Craig Samborski, but First Day Events is the event’s coordinator. First Day Events’ point person for coordinating the festival, Sarah Koster, is also an administrative assistant at Garage Starts, where Mayor Swanson is CEO. The nonprofit shares a mailing address with Garage Starts and Puredriven, where Swanson is also CEO.

Swanson on Monday did not respond to the News Tribune's requests for comment on whether he thought First Day Events coordinating Festival of Sail was a conflict of interest as he, as mayor, had urged the council to support the event. He previously told the News Tribune that "As I understand city policy, I am no longer allowed to speak to you,” before hanging up.

During the meeting, Swanson pushed for the council to quickly submit the permit to the DNR.

“We need to get the permit. That is the next step. And if the city is not willing to do that … it could create a time crunch,” Swanson said.

But councilors Robin Glaser and Cathy Erickson urged caution.

“This has been a high-anxiety meeting for me about feeling pressured to do something that I just wasn’t yet prepared to discuss,” Erickson said.

Councilor Miles Woodruff read an email from Samborski aloud during Monday’s meeting that suggested the event could be canceled because of action from the council.

It’s unclear if he was referring to having his production company on the permit, forming a contract with the city for reimbursement or the council’s establishment of an ad-hoc committee to help plan the event. Samborski did not respond to the News Tribune’s calls Friday.

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“If this moves forward I am going to cancel the event, I don’t have the time and resources to educate a bureaucratic committee, not to mention the event does not happen on city property,” Samborski wrote in the email.

Financial concerns

As it stands now, there are no agreements between the city and Festival of Sail or First Day Events for any sort of reimbursement.

That means the city is on the hook for many expenses, including considerable overtime for the police department and paying for outside law enforcement departments for assistance during the event.

Pietila and other city staff urged the council to establish a contract with Samborski, the promoter, so it can recoup the costs.

“I feel like that would definitely move this forward in a positive light,” Pietila said.“As finance director, the most worrisome thing is the budget.”

She said that while the festival would help boost area businesses, the sales tax it would generate is earmarked for debt service payments for the wastewater treatment facility and can't be used for special events.

Woodruff said he wants the event to happen, but it needs to be clear what the city’s liabilities and financial obligations are first.

“Money is my concern … where does this city come out in the end? I want to come out at least even,” Woodruff said.

Permitting was different for the Festival of Sail when it was last held in Duluth in 2019. Namely, there was not DNR property involved.

But the City of Duluth did require the event to pull two permits — one for the Parade of Sail and the other for the Festival of Sail itself.

Concerns for safety

City of Duluth Spokesperson Kate Van Daele said the Greater Downtown Council took out the two permits (the city required a nonprofit pull the permits) and paid the city $2,300 and $3,500 for the permits. Those amounts covered city expenses needed for the road closures — traffic control, police, etc.

During the Feb. 7 council meeting, Two Harbors leaders and officials raised various safety concerns about traffic control, parking, first-responder access and staffing.

In the meeting, Two Harbors Police Chief Rick Hogenson said the town conducted multiple meetings with emergency response teams like the public works, the U.S. Coast Guard, Duluth Fire Department, Duluth Police Department, DNR and Minnesota State Patrol.

Agate Bay.
The breakwater at Agate Bay in Two Harbors. Ships visiting for the Festival of Sail are expected to dock on the inner side of the breakwall.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Two Harbors only has a small police department and a volunteer fire department, causing a staffing concern.

“We just come from a smaller area, so we don’t have all of those resources, but it doesn’t mean it’s not something we can’t pull off. We have partners we can collaborate with,” Hogenson said. “We just have to look to other ways to get the staffing to levels that we need.”

Hogenson said when the festival was held in Duluth, it had 30 uniformed officers, but “our numbers are far below that."

Duluth Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj told the News Tribune there could be an additional worry in medical staffing on top of officer staffing.

“They are expecting between 30-40,000 people a day and with any type of big event like that, you’re going to get calls. Whether they have adequate numbers, adequate staffing or whether they need to audit their organization and request mutual aid support, that’s kind of up to them,” Krizaj said. To date, Two Harbors has not requested mutual aid from the Duluth Fire Department, he said.

Hogenson told the News Tribune he aims to send out mutual aid requests to surrounding emergency response teams within a month.

In the meeting Feb. 7, Jennifer Sterbenz, community development planner for Two Harbors, brought up construction on the wastewater treatment plant and a potential development project that will draw construction trucks along state Highway 61.

“There’s no way construction trucks and everything else is going to be getting up Highway 61 and maneuvering through all those people,” Sterbenz said.

Public Works Director of Two Harbors, Jim Gilbert, said traffic concerns downtown will affect local businesses and cause traffic stops.

“Some places people are not going to be able to get to. There’s only one point of entrance for people,” Gilbert said in the meeting.

Lake County emergency planner Matt Pollmann told the council he’s also navigating other events along the shore that could bring people through town. He noted the Fisherman’s Picnic in Grand Marais is scheduled for the same dates as the Festival of Sail, drawing an additional 5,000-10,000 people.

“A major planning piece right now is nailing down the traffic plan and the parking plan, so we’re working with City Council and event organizers to address those. It’s a big public safety piece,” Pollmann told the News Tribune.

Another concern is time.

“Ideally, this planning process would have started earlier, no doubt about that. I’m not going to lie about that,” Pollmann said. “Ideally, we would like more time, but it is coming along, and we have talked to all the stakeholders, collaborators and what not, but we’ll be able to make this safe in the amount of time that we have.”

Pollmann said they hope to do a table-top exercise in late April or early May to simulate incidents and test their incident management plan.

“I really like the fact that we could do something like this, but I want it to be a good event,” Councilor Robin Glaser said as she expressed her concerns for event preparation. “I want it to be a something that we look back on and say, ‘Wow, we did a great job.’”

Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jlovrien@duluthnews.com or 218-723-5332.
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