Seafood Fest kicks off key fundraiser

by Larry Alexander
crayfish-423251_640The Marquette West Rotary’s Seafood Fest is more than just a good time, a chance to eat some great food and listen to some great music. This may come as a surprise, but the Seafood Fest is primarily a very successful fundraiser, which has generated $432,620 for local organizations over the past twenty-five years.
The twenty-sixth annual festival begins August 27. Festival hours are from 4:00 to 10:00 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, and from noon to 10:00 p.m. on Saturday.
Seafood Fest features live bands, children’s activities and a wide variety of seafood and other tasty delights all prepared by Marquette West Rotary and many other community volunteers. In addition to the great food and live music, the Lake Superior Corvette Club sponsors the Show and Shine classic car show and the United Way of Marquette County will kick off its 2009-10 Capital Campaign officially. Visit for details.
rotarylogoThe Marquette West Rotary was formed in March 1984 and held its first Seafood Fest that September. The group started with about twenty members and has grown to about fifty-five as of this year.
Wallace Pearson Sr., MD, was a charter member. Pearson has been a Rotarian since 1965, joining just two years after he came to Marquette in 1963. As a practicing physician, Pearson found getting to the Monday noon Rotary meetings left him feeling he was not adequately serving his patients. This led to his resigning as a Rotarian.
“I was very happy when the new Wednesday Rotary came along,” Pearson said.
Of the six founding members of the Marquette West or Wednesday Rotary, four came from the Monday Rotary group. Pearson said the Monday group is not only the oldest in Marquette, but the sixth or seventh oldest Rotary group in the nation.
Pearson liked the new club’s focus on sustained involvement in local fundraising projects like Seafood Fest. The Seafood Fest idea came from local businessman Ron Klum, who owned and operated the Northwoods Supper Club for many years.
“Ron Klum had the idea for the Seafood Fest as our primary fundraiser,” Pearson said. “He had just returned from Florida, where he’d been to a seafood festival. So that first year we had a small Coke trailer with a grill.”
The trailer had one major drawback. Smoke from the grill hung from its ceiling and only the shortest volunteer could work the grill. Pearson said he couldn’t stand up in the trailer without getting a lungful of smoke.
“We opened all the windows, but it was still bad,” Pearson said. “So the next year we went with the tents.”
The tents helped not only with the smoke, but also provided some protection from the rain, which Pearson said was a standard part of the first few festivals. But the tents themselves were problematic.
“We rented the tents from a place in Milwaukee and they charged by the day,” Pearson said.
“We had to go down and get them and then set them up quickly the next day so they’d be ready for Friday.”
The festival used to be after Labor Day, but was moved to August to take advantage of better weather. It also matches up with the return of Northern Michigan University students and their families.
Pearson said he knew the festival would be a success the first year they started cooking in the tents and a steady stream of elderly women came to the park, despite the rain to buy seafood to take home.
“If they’re here in the rain, we’ve got a festival,” Pearson remembers thinking.
Pearson said they relied on the people who received donations from the Marquette West Rotary to work the festival.
Eighty volunteers per each of the event’s four shifts are needed to manage the event. At first, recipients volunteered to help, but even this was not sufficient. Enter the United Way. Four-years ago, the United Way teamed up with the Marquette West Rotary to provide and schedule volunteers for the event’s four shifts.
The event has become an effective way to kick-off the United Way’s annual Capital Campaign. According to Sue Minckler, United Way campaign coordinator, the United Way was looking for a public venue to kick off its annual campaign, and since the Marquette West Rotary and the United Way serve many of the same agencies, the partnership was a good fit.
“The Seafood Fest is a great community event, and by partnering with the Rotary West, we created a win-win situation for everyone,” Minckler said. “The United Way raises awareness for its annual fund-raising campaign, the United Way member agencies volunteer at the event, gaining exposure for themselves and the services they provide, and Rotary West gains a large volunteer workforce.”
The Seafood Fest marks the start of United Way’s 2009-10 campaign, which will be co-chaired by Northern Michigan University President Les Wong and his wife, Phyllis.
Minckler encourages Marquette County residents and businesses to continue their phenomenal support by participating generously in this year’s campaign.
“United Way donations help provide funding for local services through the thirty United Way agencies in our area,” Minckler said. “Last year, approximately 10,800 people in Marquette County were served by programs funded by the United Way.”
“Working with the United Way has really become a great partnership,” festival co-chair Christine Pesola said.
Other volunteers find the experience rewarding and a great chance to stay in touch with the community. It becomes an opportunity for fellowship, as people enjoy the food and the warm atmosphere.
“I work the Seafood Fest every year and have for years,” said Nheena Weyer Ittner, director of The Upper Peninsula Children’s Museum, which has received several grants from Seafood Fest funds. “I love it. I get to talk to hundreds of people as I serve them food and it also feels great to roll up my sleeves to help an organization that helps us so much. It’s a win-win experience.”
8-18 Media, the U.P. Children’s Museum’s youth journalism program, also has benefited from Seafood Fest funds and their director and the kids were happy to volunteer.
“We had our (8-18 Media) red shirts on as a group and served up a huge amount of seafood in the main seafood tent,” said 8-18 Media director Dennis Whitley. “Other than the torture of not being able to eat the shrimp we were serving, it was a great time and I liked the visibility it gave our program.”
The Marquette West Rotary Foundation is responsible for distributing funds raised by Seafood Fest and other events. Proceeds from the festival are used to help local organizations. Small donations are made to many groups.
According to Pesola, the Seafood Fest nets about $20,000 to $25,000 per year. Of this, some is set aside to help fund the Youth Exchange program and the rest is given to the Foundation for distribution.
“Seafood Fest is more than just a good time,” Pesola said. “A lot of people don’t know it’s a fundraiser.”
The Marquette West Rotary Foundation was created in 1988 and its board is made up of five Rotarians and four other community members.
This nine-person panel is responsible for reviewing grant applications and distributing funds.
The Foundation has given grants for everything from after-school supplies to constructing Kid’s Kingdom in Mattson Lower Harbor Park.
“We like to fund things, rather than operations,” Pesola said.
The Rotary West Foundation has helped put the fun in the Children’s Museum by providing critical dollars toward exhibits such as the VanDerGraf Generator, infrastructure to maintain the very special sound buttons that kids love and supplies for murals.
“The Rotary West Foundation has given us the ability to keep on improving,” Weyer Ittner said.
“Our youth journalism program was given $500 to help cover the expenses for our trips to Denver and Minneapolis to cover the Democratic and Republican National Conventions last fall,” Whitley said. “This was especially important funding for us since a national grant that we had anticipated receiving for the trips fell through. Our young reporters and editors were able to attend the conventions and listen to and report on, in person, the McCain and Obama acceptance speeches. They were also able to interview many, many political heavyweights and work alongside journalism heavyweights.”
Pearson said the Marquette West Rotary and the Seafood Fest are about three things: first fellowship, then community giving and the Rotarian spirit, and then raising money.
“It was hard to tone down the idea of making a profit and get everyone working for fellowship,” Pearson said.
Twenty-six-years later, the Seafood Fest is bringing in cash to help others, encouraging the idea of community giving and providing a great opportunity for fellowship as Marquette County gets together to listen to music, look at classic cars, eat crab legs and enjoy a really good “block party.”
—Larry Alexander


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