Harmony Park is on a hot seat

Published 10:03am Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The top two officials of the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office told county commissioners Tuesday they are fearful their deputies are being put in harm’s way when they are on patrol at music festivals at Harmony Park along the western shore of Geneva Lake.

The park is being advertised through social media as a place where drugs are OK, and the Sheriff’s Office does not have enough staff to adequately counter the activity taking place there, said Chief Deputy Glen Strom.

“I worry about the safety of the deputies and correctional officers all the time,” Strom said. “When they’re out at large events at Harmony Park, it’s concerning because they’re out there in limited numbers. A friendly crowd can turn hostile really quick if they feel they can get away with it.”

The Freeborn County Board of Commissioners approved having a public hearing at 9 a.m. Aug. 6 about whether to alter the park’s conditional-use permit.

Owner Jay Sullivan said he invited all of the commissioners to come out to the park and said between now and the August hearing he hopes there will be a time when he and the sheriff can meet to work out solutions.

“Although they’re serious problems, they’re not hard to remedy,” he said. “We’re working on a lot of the details right now.”

Freeborn County Sheriff Bob Kindler raised concerns to county commissioners about the activity taking place at the park after multiple arrests took place at the music-and-camping venue Memorial Day weekend during the Bella Music Fest.

County officials are considering whether there should be changes to the park’s conditional-use permit, which addresses the rules governing the park.

Kindler said there have been problems at the park for several years, but the problems have grown exponentially in the last two years. Some festivals draw as many as 5,000 to 6,000 people from all over the country, and drug sales and purchases taking place at the park run the gamut from LSD and heroin to cocaine, bath salts, marijuana and methamphetamine, among others.

“Guns follow all drug transactions, and I’m very fearful of a serious event happening in that park if somebody loses control and starts shooting at people and we have a mass shooting incident,” Kindler said.

Though the Memorial Day festival was particularly troublesome, there are other mid-summer events that also cause problems, the sheriff said.

But the safety of the deputies is not the only concern at the park.

Strom said some participants from out of town at the festivals have been injured or have had to be transported to the hospital by ambulance, which in turn uses local taxpayer dollars. Some emergency responders have expressed concerns about their own safety in responding to the park.

“We cannot, as a county and people knowing that this type of behavior is going on, allow it to go on,” said Freeborn County Attorney Craig Nelson.

Until the August hearing, Nelson said, county staff and deputies will be monitoring the smaller musical events taking place at the park and plan to meet with Sullivan.

Sullivan has owned the park since 1996. It also hosts events such as weddings, wedding receptions, motorcycle rallies, horseshoe tournaments, performance arts retreats and family reunions. Tickets are sold out for Project Earth, a music festival slated to start Friday and end Sunday. Geneva Lake Jam, a one-night music show, takes place July 6.