MinnEcon indicator | Town festivals stay strong despite economy

Pretty much every town in Minnesota celebrates something during the year with a festival. Ice fishing. Rhubarb. Buffalo. My friend Dominic Papatola did a lovely job in June talking on MPR about his favorite Minnesota summer festivals.

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But the MinnEcon nerds (OK, me) don’t think about fun. We wonder about what stuff means for the Minnesota economy. How have these small town festivals fared in the worst recession in decades?

Anecdotal evidence suggests they’re doing OK.

I’m painting with broad strokes here. But Trisha Reinwald, executive director of the Minnesota Jaycees and a source in MPR’s Public Insight Network dropped us a line recently to let us know that the hundreds of festivals, tournaments and other charitable events put on by local Jaycees are finding sponsors and drawing crowds despite the tough times.

That includes places with the some of the highest unemployment rates in Minnesota. Reinwald tells us:

We have gotten a lot of anecdotes saying that this past summer/fall that even with the economic situation- our local organizations had high attendance from the community and that donations from local businesses for these events and festivals held steady this year (both in-kind donations and cash donations).

Festivals and special events are economic drivers in many of our small towns — we are thinking that many of these communities see how much they rely on these events to drive tourism in the summer/fall.

Perhaps localization of our economies is one way that smaller communities can/are staying afloat.

The Jaycees, she says, don’t track from year to year the number of attendees or donations for its events on a statewide basis, but she noted that in Hutchinson, wracked by job losses at Hutchinson Technology, the local Jaycees chapter “was worried that it would be difficult to pull off their Annual Water Carnival. But the event fared well this past summer,” says Reinwald.

In Brainerd, where unemployment topped 20 percent earlier this year and remains in double digits, the Jaycees run the $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza together with local businesses. Given the scale of the event it’s easy to see the positive effect on the economy, she adds.

Festivals won’t pay all the bills, of course. There are plenty of cities struggling to close budget gaps and survive in this recession. But even in a lousy economy, the town festival still has the power to draw people and dollars together. For local economies in Minnesota, that’s a positive indicator.

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Have you helped run a small town festival or event this year in Minnesota? How did the recession effect it? Post a comment below or click here and share a story.

Check the map below for some positive economic signs sent to us by Minnesotans in our Network, then share your own.

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