If you've ever driven to the Minnesota State Fair – well, first, my condolences – you've probably seen plenty of pop-up parking lots in the neighborhoods outside the fairgrounds.
It's seemingly always the same: some enterprising homeowner turning his or her front yard into a temporary parking business, and presumably making lots of cash off desperate fairgoers.
While those things may be true, the reality is a lot more complex – certainly more than I was expecting it to be when I set out to interview some of these front-yard entrepreneurs on Tuesday.
It wasn't easy getting information, because these folks are a tight-lipped and secretive lot (more on why later). But one especially friendly and open homeowner, who we'll call "Hillary," helped me realize that these operations are anything but fly-by-night.
Is it a miserable job?
I've always wondered if the folks who attend these front yard lots have to sit out there all day and miss the fair, holding signs, handling cash, and watching cars while the rest of us chow down on cheese curds.
"Oh, no! I try to go every day," said Hillary, who owns a home in the neighborhood right outside the fair's east entrance (near Snelling Avenue and Midway Parkway).
She told me she gets to go because she and her neighbors essentially work in shifts, managing each other's yards when someone needs to step away.
This leads us to the most surprising revelation: the cottage industry outside the fair (which consists not only of lawn lots, but also street vendors) is amazingly sophisticated and organized.
"Everyone [in the neighborhood] has it really down to a system," Hillary told me. She explained that things could often get "ugly" between competing neighbors decades ago, but now, they all work together, and even set prices (based entirely on supply and demand).
The going rate for a parking spot on Tuesday morning, by the way, was $30.
Hillary also said some folks coordinate parking with walkie-talkies, and described a system of turn-taking that sounds a lot like a retail sales floor – in other words, letting your colleagues get some business once in a while instead of swooping in and taking every customer.
Hillary jokingly referred to this business alliance as "the illuminati."
Not all fun and games
The job does come with some complications, though; in fact, Hillary frequently described the business as "aggravating."
She explained that this front yard entrepreneurship is legally allowed by St. Paul (under special overlay zoning), but that doesn't necessarily mean the city is nuts about it.
In fact, Hillary said, there have been days "where they would come down and photograph all of our houses."
And "we've gotten the gamut of threatening letters" regarding sales taxes and other red-tape issues, she added.
Every once in a while, Hillary said, the city will get on "an enforcement kick."
GoMN has reached out to St. Paul regarding this situation but has yet to hear back.
You don't earn a nickname like "the illuminati" without being a little secretive – and hesitant to talk to the media.
Hillary was beyond welcoming (and even pulled out a chair for me), but others were downright hostile. One homeowner effectively chased me off, believing I intended to publicize his home address (probably a fair concern, considering this is a cash business and one doesn't want to advertise to thieves).
Another was seriously offended by my request to take an anonymous picture of his colorful parking sign.
The burning question
So how much money do the homeowners make off this 12-day-a-year business?
"You get out of it what you put in," Hillary explained. Her operation is somewhat casual, as she's just trying to make enough to pay her property taxes (she lives out-of-state most of the year, and likes maintaining a Minnesota address).
Another entrepreneur told me she and her husband make a pretty good amount each year, and put it all toward their three kids' college educations.
As you can imagine, the homeowners aren't comfortable giving specific dollar amounts, but judging by the business I saw out there, the "aggravations" Hillary mentioned are definitely worth the trouble.