Harmony Park fans voice their support

Published 9:28 am Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Almost two dozen people from both inside and outside of Freeborn County voiced support Tuesday for Harmony Park, the music and camping venue along the western shore of Geneva Lake.

Drawing on personal experiences of how they have benefited from the park, the people encouraged the Freeborn County commissioners to keep the park open and to work with its owner, Jay Sullivan, to resolve any problems with the park’s conditional-use permit.

“I owe my life to Jay Sullivan and the community of people I belong to out there,” said Albert Lean Sarah Haukoos.

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As a recovering methamphetamine user, Haukoos said she has started working there and is “living proof” of the positive impact Harmony Park can have.

The park has been at the center of controversy since a commissioner meeting in June in which Freeborn County Sheriff Bob Kindler and other county officials expressed concern about drug use and other activity taking place at the park. The meeting followed multiple arrests at the Bella Music Fest on Memorial Day weekend.

Concerns were raised about the park’s conditional-use permit. Some of the potential violations included not staying in compliance with Minnesota Department of Health permits, potentially not having a “reputable and insured” security firm, and the need to submit a schedule of the larger festivals.

The hearing Tuesday was a result of the commissioners wanting input from the public on the matter.

One man submitted signatures from more than 200 people from over five different states, asking for support of the venue. Vince Crawford of Eagan said he has been attending events at Harmony Park for 10 years, many of which were with his late wife. He said after his wife died, Sullivan agreed to let him host a memorial service for her there.

“This place was part of her medicine,” he said.

Jeffrey Phelps of Grinnell, Iowa, testified with his granddaughter McKayla Doyle.

Doyle said she felt safe at the venue and enjoyed getting to meet new people there.

Jeff Carlson, of Austin, said he met his wife at the park.

“Do not let a few bad apples ruin it for the whole bunch,” he said.

Minneapolitan Mark Murphy, a member of the band Wookie Foot, which brings two of the large shows to Harmony Park annually, talked about the standard his group set to achieve when they first started performing.

He also talked about the difference between their shows and the Bella Music Fest held in May.

Freeborn County Attorney Craig Nelson joked that the park has kept him in business with additional arrests and noted the importance of making sure the people in the park are safe.

Freeborn County Sheriff Bob Kindler said it was never his intent to shut down Harmony Park, but he thinks the “safety and security at that park are not good.”

He said he does not think the park’s conditional-use permit should be rescinded but instead thinks it should be reviewed after the upcoming September event at the park. Shangri-La takes place Sept. 5-8.

Kindler said he does not have all the answers but noted that all of the players need to work together. He said he is willing to work with Sullivan and the county’s planning and zoning commission.

“I want this to succeed, but I want it to be safe,” he said. “I’m not going to support anything that’s not safe.”

Kindler said he will not have a deputy on the grounds at the September event but noted he will have one available to respond to calls as needed.

Ann Austin, a member of Partners in Prevention, said she interviewed the sheriff in the community where We Fest is held. We Fest is a three-day country music festival near Detroit Lakes. She said that performance brings in 50,000 people, and the sheriff supplies one deputy for every 2,500 people. Each deputy is assigned a different task. She said the sheriff would be willing to come and speak with local officials.

Melody Randall, a neighbor of the park, said she does not have any animosity toward any of the people going to the park, but she is concerned about the activities taking place there.

Despite a handful of opponents, Sullivan said he was overwhelmed by the support he received Tuesday morning from people both inside and outside of Freeborn County.

He said some people drove from at least four hours away to come to the hearing.

He said he looks forward to working with the Sheriff’s Office and other county officials to work through the situation.

During the hearing, he presented the progress he has made to resolve the areas of concern within the conditional-use permit. He said he is licensed with the Department of Health and has come up with site plan to submit.

Sullivan said he is working to resolve the security issues at the park and will be more involved with decisions about security. He will work with Security Specialists Inc.

He said he has cut ties with the promoter from the Memorial Day weekend festival.

Mark Ehlenz with Security Specialists, which is a licensed, insured and bonded company, said the company can have as many staff on hand as requested.

Sullivan helped bring his first event of about 300 people to the park in 1991 and purchased the park in 1996. It has gone through a series of improvements since.

Freeborn County Administrator John Kleuver said commissioners are likely to continue their discussion on the issue at their next workshop.

No other formal action was taken.