State Fair lawn parking: How much do fairground neighbors make?

One resident near the fairgrounds filled her yard with cars by Monday afternoon.
One resident near the fairgrounds filled her yard with cars by Monday afternoon.

Everyone who drives to the Great Minnesota Get-Together sees them: The State Fair's neighbors who, for 12 days in August, put their lives on hold to hawk parking on their lawns.

While vendors inside advertise corn dogs and go-kart rides, the blocks east of the fairgrounds sprout a micro-economy lucrative enough to entice many residents to take a week of vacation and parcel up their yards. Spots go for between $5 and $20, depending on distance to the gates and the day. Neighbors able to cram 20 or 25 cars on their property can make thousands.

"At $200 a day, that's enough to make staying home from work look pretty good," says Bryan, who was working a few spots near the intersection of Arona and Fair on Monday. "You need to fit about 11 cars to break even, parking cars versus going to work."

Bryan's been living in the neighborhood for 14 years, and turning his lawn into a lot during the state fair for all of them. But though he and many of his neighbors talk openly with drivers who circle the block, ask them about the business and most of these part-time parkers get quiet.

One woman, around the corner from Bryan, says that the community is wary of the state Department of Revenue. "We don't collect sales tax, and the state is fired up about that," she says, declining to give her name. She's lived in her house for 13 years, parked cars for 12 of them, and received, she says, two letters from the state warning her about her taxes. "There were even rumors that there were helicopters flying around, taking pictures of people's lawns."

Other neighbors shrug off the tax concerns, but no one wants photos taken of their lots, and no one's collecting sales tax. 

Janelle Tummel, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Revenue, says she doesn't know of specific efforts targeted at the area around the state fair. "I didn't get the sense that letters were issued to the residents near the fairgrounds," she says. Tummel did note that, generally, "Sales tax is required for an individual running a parking operation, and we have all sorts of efforts going on just to make sure that all taxpayers pay their fair share."

But if entrepreneurial residents have to be wary of an audit, they don't have to worry about the city of St. Paul cracking down. In 2005, the city passed an ordinance that directly allows for "state fair parking on residentially zoned property," provided wannabe-parkers get their neighbors' consent first -- which isn't hard when most of your neighbors are parking cars too.

Bryan says that not all of his neighbors actively participate, but "I don't know anyone who actively prohibits it. You'd probably move pretty fast."

State Fair lawn parking: How much do fairground neighbors make?

A few blocks away, another man, who also didn't want to give his name, agreed. "You know what you're getting into when you move into this neighborhood," he said. "This time of year, it's either park cars or get out of town." He was resting on two lawn chairs set up in the shade, a homemade "Parking" arrow in his lap. He's been parking cars for 16 years, and had lined the curb in front of his yard with makeshift plywood ramps, to better ease wheels on and off his lawn. Between seasons, he stores the boards in his garage.

Among the residents, some see the parking business as their given territory and some as more of a public service. The woman who had heard rumors of Department of Revenue helicopters falls into the former camp. "We feel like it's kind of a right, because we put up with the noise and the trash and the property damage, especially at night after the concerts let out," she says.

Bryan, however, sees himself as filling a legitimate need: 1,788,512 people visited the state fair this year; the fairgrounds only has 9,000 parking spots. Though the fair annually invests $1.8 million in its park-and-ride program, which boasted over one million rides in 2011, there are still going to be more than 9,000 people who want to park.

Brienna Schuette, a spokesperson for the fair, says the fair does not account for neighborhood parking in its transportation planning. But she also recognizes that the fair lots can fill up by mid-morning on weekends, and only turn over about one and a half times during an average day.

"We're not in competition with the neighborhood yard parking, but it's actually helpful in supplementing the limited parking available on the actual fairgrounds," she says. "We've heard stories and seen signs about families putting their kids through college or private school with the money earned parking cars in the yards."

And besides the numbers, for many of the residents east of the fairgrounds, the week is also just fun. Long-time parkers tell stories of busy days when they've helped people who had been looking for a spot for 45 minutes, or of one neighborhood kid who made a video about his block's unusual alter ego for a school project. Or just of negotiating prices, competing for drivers, and getting a break from their day jobs.

Between directing cars around the block to his driveway, one of Bryan's neighbors comes over to see how things are going. "It's almost like a holiday," he says. "For 12 days we're best friends. And at the end it's like, 'See you next year.'"

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