Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Mayor of Halloween Town

Bjorn Skogquist was elected Mayor of Anoka, MN in 2000 when he was twenty-two years old.  When I was twenty-two years old I was living with my sister in an apartment where we would steal the wi-fi signal from the elementary school across the street..  We let our laundry pile up so high in the hallway the wall had like, a laundry stain on the wall when we finally broke down and went to the laundromat.

Bjorn was the second-youngest elected mayor in the state of Minnesota and served in that position until 2008, being re-elected three times by the fine people of Anoka.  While in office, Bjorn encouraged the preservation of Anoka's historic downtown area and preservation of our historic buildings, as well as open-air space preservation and open government.  Being mayor of Anoka also means being mayor of The Halloween Capital of the World!

Bjorn granted me the opportunity to speak with him on the garden patio of the local coffee house, Avant Garden, on Tuesday night. I wanted to know what it was like to run a Halloween town and a town I hold very dear to my heart.  As fun and zany as those terrible made-for-tv-movies and shows make small town government look, it's a lot of hard work.

Straight out of the gate I asked him how much the little hamlet of Anoka (population 18,000) really benefits from holding the title of The Halloween Capital of the World.  Does it benefit the town financially at all?   The "official" Halloween festivities are handled by a non-profit committee, Anoka Halloween, Inc. These official events include three (yes, three) parades, The Light Up The Night Parade, The Big Parade of Little People (kids...not ya know, little people) and The Grand Day Parade. There is also The Pumpkin Bowl, which is a football game between Anoka High School and an opponent from a nearby town (those high school kids go ALL OUT for this.  If you look out at the football field that night all you see is orange.) A wine tasting, that I have sadly never been to, a house decorating contest, medallion hunt, a pumpkin carving contest, and pre-school aged costume contest among other cute, if kind of uninspired events.

  "I don't know if Halloween, Inc. makes a lot of money, if any."  Bjorn said, "They have a budget of probably around 150,000 dollars for all their events.  And if they work within that [budget] with all the big things, the pageant and the royal ambassador program year-round, gray ghost run,'s not a huge money-maker.  From a stand-point of identity, every small town has their festival and this is ours and it just happens to be really big."  I asked Bjorn if, since Anoka does hold the title of The Halloween Capital of the World,  we could do more.  We claim stake to this title and I feel, as a Halloween Lover, that Anoka cannot begin to complete event-wise with places like Salem, Massachusettes and their Haunted Happenings celebrations that takes place over the entire month of October.  Granted, Salem has more of historical lore and tourism draw, and probably a lot more change in the kitty, but that doesn't mean we can work to make ourselves a destination during the Halloween seasons too.

"We don't think big [in Anoka]. We think small."  The former mayor said.

"We should do more!" I said, being my idealistic, far-fetching self.

"I agree with you.  People aren't as creative as they could be with Halloween," Bjorn said, "Or they aren't letting the creative people come in and run with it.  The people with the money, the people in elected positions, they're all scared to try any thing new."  

The city of Anoka is an older-aged population for the most part.  These senior citizens are now looking to get rid of the maintenance and responsibilities of home ownership.  Currently, the city is building a brand-new senior housing high-rise in the shadow the the historic Anoka State Hospital (which was, at one point in time a scary Shutter Island-esque, lobotomy performing mental hospital....I love your view, Grandma!) This would be the third senior high-rise in the city.  There are countless other senior communities dotted throughout the city, mostly single-family homes that have been converted into multi-person assisted living facilities.  Bjorn sees this as a bit of a problem, "Is senior housing going to be our industry?  That isn't as important as making sure young famalies come here to live in our houses."  When Bjorn says, "our houses" he is referring to the numerous hundred year old-plus homes that have been beautifully restored in the city of Anoka and will soon be empty when Grandma goes to live in one of the bajillion senior communities in town.  "The city wants us to tear these [houses] down and build townhomes, because that's what the market wants." he continued, "For people in their fifties and sixties who want no maintenance, then yeah, townhouses but, that's just more senior housing.  Instead of that, why don't we do more artful things, more music, a bigger Farmer's market.  There is that fear of, 'We don't want young people, they're noisy, they don't pay their rent, old people, that's the way to go.'"  

"But, there going to die..."  I said.

"It's an end of life thing..." Bjorn offered.  

As for Halloween, I asked Bjorn what he thought about people, (mostly those "young people" boo! hiss!) trying to create their own events, not going through the official channels.  Is there a benefit to going through the committee, do you have access to more resources? Or is it worth taking the risk and striking out on your own if you feel like you have a great idea for an event?  

"Just because there is a committee and they copy-write it doesn't mean they own Halloween in Anoka."  He said, "Where the committee is a good idea, if it's going to be about Anoka and make everything bigger and better for everybody, then great.  But, if they are just going to get in the way of events, [events] are hard enough to do anyways, you don't need someone getting in your way."  

I told Bjorn about an idea I was kicking around with a friend of mine, of a Halloween Carnival for families (the only official Halloween event for kids and families, besides the parades, was some silly "Halloween Fun at the Library." We ate candy, listened to a story, then had a "parade" where the kids marched around the library in their Halloween costumes, annoying the creepy dudes using the free internet at the library on a Saturday morning.)  "I would imagine getting park space for that type of event would be incredibly difficult."  I said, "The problem with public space is that it's never guaranteed," Bjorn said, "for something like that you would be better off finding private property of a business or something that would benefit from your event.  Because if they benefit from it, they'll have you back year after year, and once your're established, it's hard to get rid of you."

The biggest hindrance for Anoka, if we were to ever become a destination in October with a multi-day festival, is lack of lodging.  We have a beautiful Bed and Breakfast in town, Ticknor Hill, but that only has four rooms.  They are amazing and outfitted with awesome bathtubs (very important for me) but it wouldn't hold a whole lot of people.  "Debbie and David do an awesome job with Ticknor Hill," Bjorn said, "But not everyone is looking for that kind of experience."  The closest, average-rated hotel is just a town over in Coon Rapids, an AmericInn, but that kind of kills the romance of staying "in Anoka" for the Halloween celebrations.  "Billy's used to be a hotel, the Jackson Hotel, and could easily be one again.  And over a hundred years ago, up on Ferry Street, we had a big hotel.  But today, lodging is definitely an issue, how could you stay here comfortably for more than the day?" Bjorn said.  One hundred years ago Anoka also used to host the largest summer festival in the state, it was bigger than the state fair at the time and people would take the train to come to town."  Not anymore. Due to Anoka being the County Seat and housing the courthouse and county jail our Main Street is, as Bjorn put it "roaring" and our downtown isn't all that pedestrian-friendly.  "People argue that places like White Bear Lake are able to make their downtown friendlier and more [of a destination] because they have a lake...and we just have these gorgeous rivers we don't capitalize on.  And having that government presences in town and the courthouse, that can really kill the downtown [area]" Bjorn said. 

If Halloween falls on a weekday, the big day in Anoka is always the Saturday previous to the 31st. That is the day of The Grand Day Parade, along with a host of other activities, ending the night by hitting up the bars on Jackson Street, one of which, Serum's, throws a huge tent party with live music and a costume contest with prizes worth winning, like trips to Hawaii and stuff!  For the mayor of Anoka, though, that day is a whirlwind.  "That day is crazy. It starts at nine or ten in the morning, at the legion, ride in the parade, go to the post-parade banquet, go get cleaned up, do the Royal Ambassador Pageant, MC that, it's a twelve hour day of events after that and you're beat.  But yeah, you still go out at night, because it's Halloween and you have to."  

At the risk of making myself sound like a crazy person, I told Bjorn about the Limestone Theory in regards to Anoka.  According to local Paranormal Investigator Ross Beard the structure of Anoka around the rivers is key as to why we are The Halloween Capital of the World, not necessarily the Powers-That-Be in the 1920's getting together and trying to prevent the kids (damn young people again!) pulling pranks on Farmer Joe.  "[The land] contains three elements necessary to generate energy," Ross told me, "The first is limestone with many voids, cracks and fractures.  The second is the water.  The limestone allows the water to seep and flow into the voids, cracks and fractures.  The third is quartz crystal.  The water flows across the quartz crystal, that motion alone.  No one knows or has measured this, but many studies have taken place or are in the process to prove out this theory.  Next with the history and depth of character it has taken to build this community, for one reason or another, tragedy or triumph, certain entities have decided to stay, with the substructure acting as battery for them to draw from and coexist."

 I tried to explain this to Bjorn the best I could.  "That's....interesting."  He said, "I have never heard that before."  I then asked him what he thought about the paranormal in general.  "I'm not a very perceptive person." He started, "So I guess, about ghosts and that kind of things, I don't know."  He then told me of an incident where he had dreams of a family member that had passed away or had been sleeping and felt something, a presences of some kind in front of him and opened his eyes to see blackness, but in front of his face was a darker blackness, as if something was directly in front of him.  I understand his unsure answer, I think most people feel that way, the "maybe, maybe not" route when it comes to the paranormal.      

It was incredibly interesting to talk to Bjorn, especially about the political aspect (by "political" I mean "dealing with all the bullshit") of being the mayor of a small-town (we went more in-depth about things that wouldn't be interesting to people who either don't leave here or don't care about all this small-town going-ons.)  Being in that kind of power-position at such a young age, twenty-two, is a fast way to learn how things work, how people work together (or don't work together) and the flaws and strengths of your community.  "For all my sore spots," Bjorn said, "I love Anoka."  

I also love Anoka, and I think with the right people in the right positions of decision-making, and people with passion for their town and what we can accomplish, Anoka, with hard-work, can become the Halloween destination it should be during the month of October.  

1 comment:

  1. What a great interview! So informative too!