Minnesota Yacht Festival coming to Harriet Island Regional Park in St. Paul

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It’s been years since a major music festival alighted on Harriet Island Regional Park, despite its seemingly choice location along the Mississippi River below the downtown St. Paul river bluffs.

Counting Crows headlined a “Taste of Minnesota” concert line-up in 2010 that ended in bankruptcy for the longstanding food festival. In 2012, the odd match-up of dark alt-metal rockers Tool and the dreamy roots-rock of the Dave Matthews Band put the nail in the coffin of Live Nation’s short-lived River’s Edge Music Festival.

C3 Presents now plans to sail into the same scenic venue that other concert promoters have feared to tread for more than a decade. The team behind the popular Austin City Limits Music Festival, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo have announced they’ll take over Harriet Island Regional Park on July 19 and July 20 for the inaugural Minnesota Yacht Club Festival.

Music line-up to come

The music line-up won’t be announced until sometime next month, according to C3, which is headquartered in Austin, Texas. Still, other promoters within the event industry with an inkling of the goings-on say to expect big things of the company, in which Live Nation bought a majority stake in 2014.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter this week said “stellar performances” and local cuisine are on tap.

“These are the people who do Austin City Limits,” said Rand Levy, a veteran promoter currently producing the Glow Holiday Festival at downtown CHS Field. “They’re not amateurs.”

Levy, who is not directly attached to the Yacht Club Festival, would not divulge what he’s learned of the line-up, except to say “it appears to me they’re putting together a big show. … I think it’s a great flexible grounds. It’s very pliable and flexible. I’ve done shows there and it’s terrific.”

An attractive venue built like a park

Why have promoters avoided Harriet Island for so long?

The answers have as much to do with the venue as trends within the music fest industry. Among the challenges, the Harriet Island bandshell is too low to the ground to serve as a primary stage, forcing the construction of temporary stages. Large concerts require power, fencing and other infrastructure that isn’t in abundant supply on site.

Apartments and condos constructed along the river trigger noise variance and permitting requirements that can force a stage to be relocated or reoriented. Then there’s the vagaries of drawing 30,000 fans or more to a riverfront that can flood and grassy fields that can turn to mush after heavy rains.

In short, “it’s not built out like the Summerfest grounds in Milwaukee or the State Fairgrounds, where it was purpose-built for the festival experience,” said Joe Spencer, president of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance. “Harriet Island was built as a park.”

“And at the same time, being down right by the water, it’s such a beautiful site, I’m not surprised they’re going to find a way to make it work,” added Spencer, who previously served as a cultural adviser to former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. “Having 30,000 music fans parking in downtown and having an experience down by the river is going to be a fantastic addition.”

Levy noted that music festivals have run aground elsewhere, largely because of event costs.

“You’ve got to have deep pockets,” he said. “You’ve got to have the right talent. The talent is not cheap.”

Pent-up demand

Still, with some other festivals like the Basilica Block Party in Minneapolis repeatedly side-lined in recent years, there’s a pent-up demand to come together for communal cheer following the pandemic, and there’s plenty of energy left in downtown St. Paul event venues.

The European Christmas Market at the downtown St. Paul Union Depot has been mobbed with visitors this season. This is Levy’s fourth year producing a holiday lights festival just down the street at CHS Field, the home of the St. Paul Saints, and the 31 scheduled shows have been drawing crowds. “We’re jamming them in,” he said. “This is our best year ever.”

Opening the city’s riverfront parklands to tens of thousands of visitors will take careful coordination with City Hall, but officials say they’re fully on board.

“We’re excited about it,” said Clare Cloyd, a spokesperson for St. Paul Parks and Recreation, which is working alongside the mayor’s office to make the the Minnesota Yacht Club Festival a success. “It’s been a while.”

C3 Presents are encouraging music festival fans to sign up for text alerts, emails and social media notifications at MinnesotaYachtClubFestival.com, or to follow along on Facebook, Instagram, X (previously Twitter) and TikTok.

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