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St. Paul Winter Carnival has a new CEO. Here’s what she’s learned. – Twin Cities



Parades, pageants, pins.

Schedules, security, snowfall.

Legends, traditions and 135 years of history.


It makes for a steep (and sometimes icy) learning curve for Lisa Jacobson, the new president and CEO of the organization that produces the St. Paul Winter Carnival. She started the job in August. With a background in fundraising and development, Jacobson is taking on the challenge and is ready to bring back the annual winter festivities, many of which were canceled in 2021 due to the pandemic.

She shared some thoughts about what she’s learned and her hopes for the 136th Winter Carnival, which is set for Jan. 28 to Feb. 6.

At the top of the learning list is the people who have shared their experience.

“I’m blessed with a lot of people committed to Winter Carnival,” Jacobson says, “people care about this event and seeing it happen.”

What many folks outside the organization don’t often seem to know is that Winter Carnival is not put on by the city of St. Paul, Jacobson says. The nonprofit St. Paul Festival & Heritage Foundation organizes the celebration.


“We raise 100 percent of the dollars in this event,” Jacobson said.

“We want to keep as many elements of Winter Carnival free to the public as we can,” she adds. Fundraising events in the off-season include a golf tournament and a food and drink tasting event. The Winter Carnival has added a new beard-growing contest, which starts Jan. 4, to its fundraising efforts.

Jacobson’s experience with fundraising was a factor in her hiring, says foundation board chair Greg Kuntz.

“She’s new to us, but not to the nonprofit world,” he said. “She’s proficient in fundraising and understands the world we live in.”

According to her LinkedIn profile, Jacobson is a certified fundraising executive. Her experience includes director of development for DinoMights youth hockey and corporate director of development for the Hills Youth and Family Services in Duluth.


Jacobson was elected mayor of Brooklyn Park in a special election in August.

She says people are confused about the demands of the suburban mayoral job. She has no staff or office and most of the city operations are handled by the city manager. It’s like holding down a part-time job, she says. She has been a member of the Brooklyn Park City Council since 2016. “I just took a different seat on the bus.”


The Winter Carnival doesn’t have a big budget to pay staff, so volunteers make it happen, Jacobson says.

Former carnival president and CEO Beth Ann Pinkney can’t say enough about the volunteers. Their efforts are her biggest takeaway from the job, which she left in 2013, and calls “the best five years in my working career.”

Pinkney says if she asked volunteers for five trucks, she’d get 10. They’d be there a half-hour early, bring 20 people and stay until the work was done. “That’s what keeps the place ticking.”


“It’s 99 percent volunteer-run,” Pinkney says. “Their energy is infectious.”

Her advice to Jacobson: “Get on their coattails and ride along.”

The Winter Carnival also relies on business support and a partnership with the city of St. Paul that covers everything from police to parks to snow removal, Jacobson says.

The 2022 Winter Carnival will include a “Day of Good” on Jan. 31, Jacobson says, with a blood drive, COVID-19 vaccination bus and food drive.

“People think all we do is go to parades and wave,” Jacobson says.



Jacobson hangs out with F. Scott Fitzgerald at Rice Park. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Jacobson grew up in Robbinsdale, where the city’s Whiz Bang Days were a favorite. She worked for the city in high school and college, so she was involved in the festival. In fact, she says, she’s only missed two Whiz Bang Days parades in her life — once as a kid she had chickenpox and could only watch the parade from the car, and once when she was giving birth to her daughter, but she was nearby at North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale.

As a college student at St. Thomas in the 1980s, Jacobson took in some St. Paul Winter Carnival events. She remembers an ice palace year. That’s another misunderstanding people have about the carnival today. Why isn’t there an ice palace every year? The cost and magnitude of the project just won’t allow it, Jacobson says.

The St. Paul Festival & Heritage Foundation was started in 1993, the year after the Winter Carnival saw huge losses from building an ice palace that coincided with Super Bowl XXVI in Minneapolis.

Jacobson lives in Brooklyn Park. She’s married to John Jacobson, sports director and anchor for CCX Media in the northwest suburbs. The two have a blended family, with one child still at home. She owns Lilac Boutique, which her daughter operates, in Champlin.


The 2022 Winter Carnival will see the return of the festival’s trademark events such as the Grande Day Parade at the start of carnival and the Torchlight Parade to wrap it up. Ice carving, entertainment and the ice bars will return to Rice Park in downtown St. Paul. Events at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds will include the snow sculptures and maze in the Vulcan Snow Park. The Fire & Ice Run/Walk moves to the Fairgrounds and includes a 10K, a 5K and a “No K”; it’s sponsored by Xcel Energy this year.


The Royal Coronation is Jan. 28, the popular jigsaw puzzle contest is Jan. 29 and Family Days on the two Saturdays of the Winter Carnival are in the works.

The Winter Carnival Beard Growing Contest is a new fundraising event that starts Jan. 4, with three categories: Clean-Shaven, Lumberjack and Freestyle. The clean-shaven will meet at Mama T’s Castle Tap on Rice Street sometime between 5 and 8 p.m. to be “clean-shaven” by an expert. The other two categories feature beards already on faces. Organizers are hoping for at least 50 whisker-wearers to raise $1,000 each.

The carnival is working with Treasure Island Center in downtown St. Paul on a health and wellness day, Jacobson says.

The digital ice fishing contest starts Jan. 1 and is statewide this year. Drag Queen Bingo is expanded and CynCity Tours has Gangster and Haunted walking tours.

For more information, go to and get updates on the St. Paul Winter Carnival Facebook page.


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