Staying Cool

Saint Paul Winter Carnival CEO Kate Kelly leads the tradition, with or without the snow

THERE ARE AS MANY Winter Carnival legends as there are mittens in the state’s lost-and-found boxes. There’s the story of the off-handed insult from an out-of-town reporter characterizing St. Paul as “Siberia” and “uninhabitable in winter,” a slur that spurred an outburst of civic pride that resulted in the first glorious carnival of 1886. The enduring Boreas Rex myth, reenacted in various forms over the years, pits the Ice King and his Wind brothers against Vulcan and his heat-loving minions. More recently, volunteers and an extended cast of characters have held their breath as they caught wind of canceled parades, changed events, and shifting priorities from the Saint Paul Festival & Heritage Foundation, which runs the carnival. ¶ Taking the flak, managing the fallout, and balancing the city’s mythology with cold, hard facts of festival success is foundation president and CEO Kate Kelly. “In the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, the Winter Carnival coronation was the hottest ticket in town,” says Kelly. “But now we have to adapt to changes in the local community, both demographic and lifestyle. And the impact of financials and weather can’t be ignored.” Kelly’s first priority when she signed on in 2005 was to rein in costs: the 2005 carnival came up $160,000 short; the 2006 carnival was $43,000 in the red. “There were hard decisions to make,” she explains. “Six out of the last seven winters, we’ve been burned by the weather—too warm, too wet—with ice sculptures melting, and events being moved north or canceled altogether.”

So Kelly made bold changes, reshaping what some consider the city’s defining event into a profitable—or at least break-even—venture. She recommended centralizing festivities at Harriet Island (with easy access to the Mississippi River for snow-making equipment and power sources for keeping ice sculptures intact), combining the Grande Day and Torchlight parades, and turning the black-tie coronation into a people’s ball. The board approved, but the volunteers, who staff the events and fuel the festival with their participation, most decidedly did not. “We had a town hall meeting attended by 300 volunteers, and they were angry,” says Kelly. “We were so anxious to sell the board on our ideas, we forgot the volunteers. Ultimately, they—and we—rejected a wholesale change.”

Both parades will march on this year, and the coronation will remain ballroom-bound. Skits and rituals will continue to retell the Boreas myth. However, Kelly’s marketing savvy and vision to keep the carnival around “for the next 120 years” does mean there will be some changes. An ice maze and giant snow slide are planned this year on Harriet Island, along with activities such as an international dogsled rally, a wine-and-food tasting, a Will Steger–led overnight camp out, and a partnership with Como Park Ski Hill for free snowboarding and skiing events.

“For me, it’s now about rebuilding the brand and rebuilding trust,” she says. “Although there are more than 100 events over the 10 days, we have worked to focus on fewer events of greater quality.” In addition, Kelly invites interested citizens to visualize perfect festival weather: “High teens to low twenties, no wind and sun. Those are the dream days.”