St. Paul’s Grand Old Day draws 175K but many business stay closed

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The wiener dog races were thronged with onlookers. A family fun run drew 160 participants, far surpassing the goal. And live music was performed on the avenue. Those and other aspects of Grand Old Day’s come-back celebration attracted an estimated 150,000 to 175,000 visitors to Grand Avenue on Sunday, likely netting the Grand Avenue Business Association at least a small profit toward its year-round promotion of the three-mile business corridor.

But shortly before last weekend’s 51st anniversary revival of Grand Old Day  — which hadn’t been held since 2019 — Dan Marshall took a quick survey of fellow shopkeepers within a two-block radius of Grand and Victoria avenues, the location of his toy store, Mischief Toys.

J.W. Hulme leather goods would be closed for the day-long celebration. Ditto for Freewheel Bike. And the Bread and Chocolate eatery. And Golden Fig Fine Foods. And InVision Distinctive Eyewear. And Pottery Barn home decor. And the Lovesac furniture store. And the Juut Salon Spa.

Caffe Latte shut the doors to its popular restaurant and bakery and threw itself a staff party — in Wisconsin.

“It was always like this,” said Marshall on social media on Saturday, the day before thousands of potential customers descended on the avenue. “(Grand Old Day) doesn’t benefit most shops, fills their space with people looking for free A/C and restrooms. Not huge sales. Crowds turn a bit drunk/edgy after 3 p.m. or so.”

Established in 1973, Grand Old Day is billed as the largest single-day festival in the Upper Midwest, a celebration of Grand Avenue, St. Paul’s toniest business corridor, showcasing 30 blocks of restaurants, storefronts and attractions from Dale Street to Fairview Avenue for as many as 200,000 visitors each year. For more than just a smattering of shops, however, the Grand Avenue Business Association’s largest promotional event isn’t such a blockbuster.

In fact, some small businesses don’t bother to open their doors at all. Even the Kowalski’s Market on Grand locked its doors from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., during the heart of the event, and its liquor store stayed shut all of Sunday.

Big crowds, slow sales

As it turns out, in 90-degree heat most visitors don’t swing by to walk for blocks — if not the full 2.7 miles — with their arms full of shopping bags. They’re more likely to shell out $10 for a corn dog, and then lemonade and, as the day winds on, alcohol. Eventually, they may need a place to cool down and sober up — and a toilet.

Marshall, whose store was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, sold a fair number of earrings and other small goods on Sunday, but not much else.

“Not everyone got the best experience of our store because it was so full,” he said afterward. “Our air conditioner had trouble keeping up.”

It’s a conundrum that has been part of Grand Avenue’s signature street festival for years. On Grand Old Day, the avenue is closed to east-west car traffic for nearly three miles from morning until evening, drawing tens of thousands of pedestrians, cyclists and families pushing strollers. For retailers, all the ingredients for sidewalk window gazing would seem, on the surface, perfectly aligned, but they don’t necessarily translate into sales.

In fact, for some it’s just the opposite. Given the number of food vendors and artisans from other parts of the state, Grand Old Day sometimes offers more competition than a boost for local shops.

“Grand Old Day is a lot like Dairy Queen,” quipped St. Paul management consultant Sherry Johnson on social media on Sunday, as the event began drawing to a close around her. “Every time I go to either, I enjoy the first few bites and then get sad there wasn’t a better, more local alternative.”

Organizers readily acknowledge that the event, while serving as an upbeat promotion for the city, is a mixed-bag for storeowners, and not all chose to open last Sunday.

“That’s an ongoing seesaw for our board,” said event co-chair Brian Wagner, a Grand Avenue-based Realtor. “We really want to highlight Grand Avenue businesses, and yet each individual business has to make that decision for themselves.”

Wagner noted that cutting down on outdoor food vendors would put even more financial pressure on other aspects of the event, such as commercial sponsorships and wristband sales for beer garden access. Smaller business association promotions throughout the year — the Grand Meander and Paws on Grand — tend to be revenue-neutral.

Winners and losers

Overall, there were winners and losers last weekend.

The Sencha Tea Bar on Cambridge Street, by Macalester College, drew about as much business as it could handle, with a steady stream of customers well into the afternoon. Some outdoor food vendors were mobbed, though many of the lemonade stands and corn dog booths hailed from far outside the city.

High temperatures didn’t help local restaurants, many of whom sold small bites of hot food from their sidewalk. “When it gets to be that hot, people don’t eat as much,” Wagner said. “The perfect temperature is between 72 and 75 degrees when it comes to food sales.”

Still, some shop owners welcome the exposure.

Laurie Crowell, owner of Golden Fig Fine Foods, said she would have been happy to keep her doors open on Sunday if she’d had enough workers, but she couldn’t ring up pumpkin pie spices, candles and doggie treats herself as her youngest son was graduating from high school.

“We’ve always been open on Grand Old Day, and we’ve always had a great experience,” Crowell said. “We just weren’t staffed enough to do so.”

A manager at LoveSac Furniture — a relative newcomer to the avenue — said that even a week before the event, she was still debating whether to stay open, considering the difficulty of finding employee parking. Then building security pointed out that Caffe Latte, her building neighbor, would be closed, and urged her to do the same, in part given the history of police calls to Billy’s on Grand, the restaurant situated across the street.

Billy’s, which received a permit from the city for amplified music, hosted two live bands and 3 DJs street-side, raising the volume and energy level at Victoria and Grand considerably.

“Grand Old Days went amazing,” said proprietor Wesley Spearman on Tuesday. “We hope we made Grand Avenue proud.”

The joy of coming together

Some participants saw other benefits to Grand Old Day beyond small business promotion, like the opportunity to showcase something St. Paul can offer that most suburbs can’t: a pedestrian-friendly, destination entertainment district stretching more than three miles long.

After three years of pandemic-era doldrums, having an excuse to come together was widely appreciated, as evidenced by heavy afternoon crowds despite the persistent heat.

“I saw many neighbors who walked/biked/rolled down to the avenue to enjoy the event,” said James Farnsworth, a Cathedral Hill resident, former GABA employee, deputy director of the Summit Hill Association and executive director of the Highland Business Association. “So, I’d challenge the notion that it’s a lot of non-locals. … As far as strengthening the Grand Avenue corridor, there’s definitely a lot of work left to be done on that front. I think events like Grand Old Day are more important now than ever.”

With Grand Avenue closed to vehicular traffic, a two-mile foot race in the morning drew 160 participants, followed by a parade featuring some 70 parade units.

Around 4:30 p.m. Sunday, the Jayhawks — a celebrated alt-country band that emerged from the Twin Cities music scene in the 1980s — took the mainstage near Grand and Avon for a free concert, a musical highlight of the Grand Old Day revival.

Meanwhile, alcohol sales were limited to restaurants, bars and enclosed beer gardens, cutting down on the booziness of the afternoon crowds.

Numbers have yet to be finalized, but organizers believe upwards of 150,000 and as many as 175,000 visitors descended on the avenue. Revenue totals from sponsorships, parade fees and wristbands for alcohol and certain entertainment events probably won’t be fully tallied before this weekend, but the event needed some $300,000 to break even. About a third of expenses were related to policing, street barricades and other public safety measures alone.

Marshall, of Mischief Toys, said he appreciated the hard work that went into Grand Old Day, but he’d like to see a different focus. He modified his store hours to open and close about two hours earlier than normal on Sunday to take advantage of the swell of families from the signature morning parade, while avoiding the wobbly drinkers in the early evening.

Even so, the day required extra staffing and a whole lot of planning, without a whole lot of added revenue. “It’s awesome to close the street,” Marshall said, “and I’d like to see them do it more regularly like ‘Open Streets,’ but not have it be quite so epic.”

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