For some St. Peter retail owners, business has actually been better than usual since reopening amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic this summer, but what remains low is traffic on the downtown sidewalks.
“Closing was not great, but since reopening, we’ve talked to a lot of businesses, and our numbers are like holiday times, which is huge for retail,” said Lisa Eide, owner of Her Happy Place in the downtown. “People have been really willing to support us. I thought maybe because I was newer, numbers have been good, but everyone I’ve talked to has been doing great.”
But a lot of those customers are buying online, arranging for pickup or heading straight to the store they want to buy from. COVID-19 has understandably slowed the traffic that wanders from shop-to-shop, but with some restrictions lifted and a mask mandate in place statewide, retails owners are hoping people will see the downtown as an experience again.
“I would like to see it flow on the streets. We’re missing that in St. Peter right now,” Eide said. “Saturdays had a lot of foot traffic before, and I think we can bring that up a bit and do it safely.”
Eide and other St. Peter small business owners — including Sara Mett, of Sweet Alice Floral; Carol Hayes, of Contents and Cooks & Company; Julee Johnson, of Julee’s Jewelry; Chelsie Hoffmann, of Generations Boutique; and Jill Hass, of Olita Gifts and Goods — are ready to present the first MarketFest event in St. Peter 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 22. The event will then take place four more times on the second and fourth Saturdays of September and October.
With some assistance and support from the city of St. Peter and the St. Peter Area Chamber of Commerce, the business owners have arranged for an outdoor shopping experience, featuring product from retail stores in town, but also a number of outside vendors, including product sellers, artists, entertainment and food. The latter two offerings might be in shorter supply, due to the current pandemic environment, but Eide hopes to see some 30 vendors joining the shops for the first MarketFest Saturday.
“With the businesses wanting to participate, we will have at least one vendor in front of their business. We’re trying to reach out to different places, and I have vendors as far away as Hudson, Wisconsin coming, because we are a destination,” Eide said. “Some of the businesses may also do some specialty market-only products. Some stores will just bring out their own merchandise, and some are bringing in special things to put outside.”
Mett, at Sweet Alice, expects to have some specials on offer Aug. 22.
“My employees will be doing wrapped Minnesota grown bouquets for $30,” she said. “Big, beautiful, lush Minnesota grown bouqets. And then will have some vendors around us; hopefully some that are in our shop on a regular basis. I regularly have woodworkers, potters, painters, sculptors, photographers. The vast majority of the products we sell in our shop are actually made by local artists.”
The idea of MarketFest is not unique to St. Peter, and is, in fact, inspired by a number of communities who have offered similar experiences.
“There are other communities doing it,” Eide said. “We’re just gathering vendors, artists, creators and maybe some food vendors to gather in booths along the shopping area. The community can shop the vendors and the stores at the same time.”
The general purpose, according to the organizers, is to bring the community closer together, while also bringing outside communities into St. Peter, since “Minnesota is not that big, and it’s good to cross those lines,” Eide said.
Mett added, “The overall goal is to really make a Main Street experience in St. Peter with bustling businesses and little shops and just a really fun destination for people here and from out of town.”
Planning for MarketFest began among business owners in 2019, before the pandemic. There were bigger and bolder ideas for 2020, with hopes to extend the event across the summer and include a healthy supply of food and entertainment. However, COVID-19 delayed the start and continues to make its impact, as organizers are finding that food trucks and entertainers are more stretched out than usual.
“I think that, with COVID, a lot of them are being booked elsewhere,” Eide said. “We’ve contacted a few, and a lot of them are booked already. We’re inviting our local restaurants to participate, too, so they might be able to set up with some food or drinks outside. The only restriction, per code, is no alcohol sold outside.”
With the impact of the pandemic, the focus of MarketFest in 2020 is somewhat shifted.
“Maybe it’s a little different this year,” Eide said. “We want to offer a little normalcy to people. I do know there is a lot of depression and things like that, and this might help with people getting out a bit.”
Mett added, “This year, it really is a way to give people a way to build community and do it in a way that is safe right now.”
While safety is and will continue to be on everyone’s mind, the business leaders hope that MarketFest can help people experience the St. Peter shopping, artistry and entertainment scene all in one long walk.
“I want to see foot traffic, artists engaged in the Main Street,” said Mett. “I want to see people walking the entire downtown, all the way from the north end by Stone’s Throw to the farmers market at the Co-op.”
They’re not decisions that the Nicollet County Fair Board enjoys making, but decisions that it must make, according to members.
After canceling the county fair, as a whole, in the spring, the board waited as long as it could to hold off on canceling the regular August demolition derbies that usually take place at the fair. On Aug. 4, three days before the first derby was scheduled to take place, the board officially announced the show could not go on. The derbies were postponed until further notice.
“With the current guidelines on outdoor events limiting to 250 people, it would not be feasible for us to hold these events,” the board posted on social media. “We will post alternate demo dates as soon as possible when the restrictions on outdoor events are lifted.”
The state of Minnesota has put a limit of 250 people and no more than 25% venue capacity, including workers and participants, allowed at outdoor events. And even with that capacity limit, attendants would be highly encouraged to be distanced 6 feet apart from anyone not in the same household.
As a number of commenters on the fair board Facebook page noted, some venues and event centers in Minnesota have seemingly broken those rules, but as fair board members pointed out, the state has cracked down in some instances, and the Nicollet County Fair organization is not wanting to break state rules, contribute to the spread of a pandemic virus and/or pay hefty fines.
After the owner of North Star Ranch in Effie chose to go ahead with a rodeo event that drew in thousands of mostly maskless residents, including at least one who had COVID-19, the state came down hard. According to a statement from the Attorney General’s Office, this is the first action it’s brought to enforce the June executive order “against an entertainment venue that has operated in open defiance of the law.” It’s seeking civil penalties of up to $25,000 per violation, restitution, damages, and other forms of relief. It’s also passing its information along to other governing bodies, like the Minnesota Department of Health, which might end in license suspension or revocation for some of the food vendors at the event.
That was all the warning the Nicollet County Fair Board needed.
“It was hard to let go of the demo derbies, because we know everyone loves them,” Fair Board Secretary Ann Volk said. “But over the weekend, the news came over that the state would fine that rodeo $25,000 per violation, and we just don’t have that kind of money.”
Volk did some measurements and research of the Nicollet Fairground grandstand, and she found that the venue could hold somewhere from 900 to 1,000 spectators when full, well above the state’s current limit for gatherings. Just the number of drivers and workers/volunteers alone would push a demo derby’s numbers well over 100. And 100 people in the stands would not be anywhere near enough, Volk said, to make up for the cost of putting on the derby.
“Even 500 people would still be a loss,” she said.
Without revenues generated by the annual fair and all the events that come with it, in addition to other canceled summer events, public and private, that would normally take place at the fairgrounds, things are a bit rough for the fair board.
“We’ve had about a 99% shut down on everything, and financially, it’s putting us in dire straits, that’s for sure,” said Fair Board President Windy Block. “But we know we’re not alone in that.”
The chances that event capacity restrictions will be lifted in time to have derbies and other major events in 2020 are low. Block said the board is pretty much resigned to writing off the year.
And while expenses are down, too, revenues are also needed for the everyday costs.
“We usually have an event every two or three months, because that helps generate funds to pay our utility bills, as they run around roughly $1,200 per month,” Block said. “That’s how we operate, basically. We try to generate enough funds to keep the place open and make some minor improvements as we go.”
The board is still above water for now, using reserves, while also applying for and receiving grants and emergency loans to get it through this troubling period. The other significant effort from the board is to obtain nonprofit status, which would allow community organizations to support the fair and get tax write-offs for their donations.
The light at the end of the tunnel for the fair board is the 2021 Nicollet County Fair, which will be the 150th year.
“We’ve had conversations about what we can do to make it a special year,” Volk said. “We’ve done things with the history of the fair in past years, so we have that ready to go. But we want to do something really special for 2021. We’ve got the carnival set and the dates set already; we’ve got bands we had to cancel this year that we’re already rebooking for next year.”
Block agreed that planning for next year is the board’s greatest consolation at the moment.
“It’s our target for a major celebration next year,” he said. “We just hope that the other entities that utilize the fairground and rent from us will be back on track.”
In the meantime, the board intends to continue working with local Nicollet and Brown County Public Health officials, in addition to the state, as it looks for ways to utilize the grounds. Leadership hopes the community will understand the current predicament and still be there when some normalcy is restored.
“I think, overall, people understand it,” Block said. “Hopefully we get through this thing sooner or later.”
Nicollet County has formulated a plan to spend its $4.1 million in CARES Act pandemic relief funding, and it starts with helping individuals who may need it most, but also makes room for small businesses.
The state of Minnesota recently distributed its dollars to counties, cities and townships, but it did not give specific direction on how those dollars should be spent. The dollars are not meant to replace revenue and they should be used only for expenses related to the pandemic. Also, costs that the dollars go toward should be incurred by Dec. 1, meaning the money can’t be saved. Other than those basic rules, the entities seemingly have a lot of discretion in how to spend.
The Board of Commissioners passed a flexible spending plan at its Aug. 11 meeting, allowing staff to move ahead with a few programs now, while loosely allocating dollars to various causes.
The largest sum goes straight to the county, reimbursing it for costs incurred since the pandemic began and preventing those costs from going to local taxpayers. That includes payroll and benefits, Public Health response, facility disinfection, technology and increased solid waste costs. It amounts to about $2.07 million, which is about half of the total the county received.
The other half of the funds are allocated to community, business and nonprofit assistance.
Specifically, staff recommended $300,000 to local school districts for distance learning expenses, $150,000 to fund community partners that took hits, $100,000 in health and safety PPE grants to local organizations, $100,000 to a crisis funding program (individual and family assistance for lost income, housing needs, etc.), $50,000 for childcare funding, $10,000 to local food programs, $10,000 for iPad distance learning grants, and $10,000 for livestock depopulation and economic assistance.
After that, the county has its eyes on using $1 million to go toward business assistance grants. And that still leaves about $343,000 to go toward other programs or to add to some of the ones already listed.
To kick things off, staff had commissioners approve three initial plans: the crisis funding, the health and safety PPE funding, and the childcare funding. The crisis program can help individuals and families with housing and rent costs, transportation costs, funeral costs and more. The PPE program is open to all organizations of 50 employees or less in the county that need some kind of PPE or safety equipment during the pandemic. The childcare plan will assist families struggling to pay for care at the moment.
Nicollet County Health and Human Services Director Cassie Sassenberg indicated that those programs will serve immediate needs. She noted that the entire funding plan, once enacted, will fill a lot of gaps caused by the pandemic, but it certainly won’t be enough to help every person who needs it right now.
“I would not say I’m confident (that the plan fulfills everything), but I think this is a good start, and once we get these rolled out, we might start to see some other gaps that we could work on covering,” she said.
After rolling out the first three programs, county staff will continue to return to the board, seeking permission to roll out other programs in the funding plan. County Administrator Ryan Krosch noted that things could change quickly, and the board has flexibility to alter the allocated dollars over the next months.
Regarding the $1 million to be distributed to businesses through grants, there are still some question marks. what businesses should qualify? Who should be ruled out? What should the maximum grant be? How much documentation would be required?
What staff proposed in a July 21 discussion with the Board of Commissioners was a program with $5,000 maximum grants. Only businesses with at least one employee and less than 20 employees would qualify, and they cannot be home-based. The businesses would have to demonstrate adverse impact from the pandemic. Krosch indicated he would like to see some kind of documentation from the businesses applying, but he’d also like to keep the process simple and easy to utilize.
With feedback from the commissioners, Krosch said he and staff would continue fine tuning the plan, and staff intends to bring something more specific back to the board.