Seafood reigns supreme at local festival, by Pam Christiansen

To most people, dining along the Lake Superior shoreline brings thoughts of whitefish, smoked lake trout or pasties, unless they have been lucky enough to partake in a Marquette West Rotary Seafood Festival. The annual Seafood Fest will be held August 21, 22 and 23.
“We are so proud that this festival is celebrating twenty-five years of successful fun, food and fundraising for Marquette area visitors and residents,” said Bill Martin.
Martin and Christine Pesola are serving as cochairpersons of the event for the second year in a row.
“People ask why we do this every year, since it involves so much work, but we like to focus on the results of the festival,” he said.
Many think Marquette West Rotary operates the Seafood Festival as a way to make money, and while that is one reason the festival is held, there is more.
Wally Pearson was instrumental in the founding of Marquette West Rotary Club in 1984. He said the group wanted to find a way to serve the community, bring club members together in a shared project and raise money. The Seafood Fest seemed like a good idea.
“We didn’t realize what a big event it would become,” Pearson said. “Over the years it has grown, but it still is a way that our members can work together for a common goal and get to know each other in a more personal way than just attending the weekly meetings.”
Pearson still is in charge of orienting new members to Marquette West Rotary and he speaks with pride of all the group has accomplished.
“The money isn’t the real goal; it is service to the community and the ability of our members to see what we have done to improve the beautiful place that we live,” Pearson said.
The festival is held in Mattson Lower Harbor Park, adjacent to one of the group’s largest undertakings—the Kids Cove Playground. Kids Cove was designed by children and cost about $125,000 to complete. The Marquette West Rotary Foundation not only supported the project, but served as fiscal agent for the funds that were raised to complete the project.
During the past twenty-five years, the group has made grants totaling almost $500,000 to more than fifty organizations such as the YMCA of Marquette County, Bay Cliff, the U.P. Children’s Museum, Peter White Public Library, Marquette County Dental Clinic, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Marquette/Alger Special Olympics, 4H, Willow Farms Therapeutic Riding Program, Sandy Knoll School, Room at the Inn, Salvation Army, Marquette/Alger Young Authors and the River Park Sports Complex.0808lop1
Over the years, the Seafood Fest has evolved. The first festival began as a two-day event that combined seafood with a farmers market, craft booths and live music. Tokens used to purchase food were made of heavy cardboard and cost fifty cents each. Today durable metal tokens are used.
The original festival was held on the Saturday and Sunday of the weekend following Labor Day. For many residents, the festival signaled the end of summer. Several years ago, the festival was changed to the weekend prior to the Labor Day weekend and runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
The date change allows the group to take advantage of the annual influx of returning NMU students and their families. Many have made the Seafood Festival an annual tradition. They enjoy the festival and its friendly atmosphere.
Weather also is a factor in the success of the festival, and the earlier date generally has provided much more predictable and warmer weather for the festival. The festival menu includes shrimp, mussels, crab legs, smoked fish, chowder, chicken strips, hot dogs, brats, hamburgers, crabby cakes, French fries, baked potatoes, scallops, stuffed crab, clam strips, fried whitefish and lake trout, Cajun catfish, corn on the cob, cheesecake, ice cream, popcorn, Pepsi products, beer and wine.
Festival goers are responsible for eating almost three tons (6,000 pounds) of seafood and fish, 800 pounds of hot dogs and brats, 1,500 ears of corn and more than 2,000 pounds of potatoes.
Cold drink sales are up during hot weather and chowder sales peak if the weather is cold and/or wet. Nevertheless, participants enjoy good food and entertainment no matter what the weather brings.
Live entertainment has been a draw for the festival every year. Jeff Santi is in charge of booking entertainment, and has produced a versatile mix of local talent and musical styles. This year’s line up includes Terracotta Half-Life, Combo Caliente, Chris and Paul, Flat Broke Blues Band, Hudson Granite, Evergreen 7, the Slamtones, the Jeremy Rowe Band, Juke Box, 4-play, Grass Monkey and Chasin’ Steel. The band schedule will be listed on posters and at
Another popular event held during the festival is the classic car show sponsored by the Lake Superior Corvette Club from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Saturday. This event is growing in popularity, and last year, over 100 vintage vehicles were displayed. The event is expected to grow due to promotion in statewide and nationwide event listings this year.
One of the biggest challenges for festival organizers is staffing each of the tents with volunteers. Marquette West Rotary has approximately sixty members. These members, their families and friends spend a great deal of time running the festival, but still can’t cover all of the duties involved in operating the festival.
In the past, organizations that received funding were asked to provide volunteers for the festival, but having adequate numbers of volunteers to cover all shifts still was difficult.
This problem was solved by a partnership between Marquette West Rotary and United Way.
United Way uses the Seafood Festival as a very public venue to kick off their annual campaign. They also ask United Way agencies to provide volunteers for the festival. Many of these agencies receive grants from United Way as well as from the Marquette West Rotary Foundation. A highlight of the 2007 festival was WLUC-TV6 weatherman Bill Roth being taped to a huge wall with duct tape. Festival goers could purchase a yard of duct tape for $1 and use it to pin Roth to the display. Luckily, Roth was good-natured about the experience and was freed in time to appear in his usual morning weather spot the following week.
“The United Way partnership has been mutually beneficial,” Martin said. “United Way provided approximately eighty volunteers last year and was able to very publicly kick off their campaign to a huge audience. This benefits both of our organizations. We appreciate the efforts of Sue Minckler and Barb Meyers who do a wonderful job of getting United Way involved in our community and with the Seafood Festival.”
Festival hours run from 4:00 to 10:00 p.m. on Thursday and Friday and from noon to 10:00 p.m. on Saturday. Anyone who would like to volunteer for a shift can contact Minckler at 226-8171. Volunteers also will receive a special twenty-fifth anniversary edition volunteer T-shirt.
During the past twenty-five years, the group has provided almost $500,000 to support local projects and organizations. The Marquette West Rotary Foundation board is responsible for managing and distributing funds raised from the Seafood Festival.
The board is comprised of nine volunteers—five Rotary West members and four members from the community at large. Bob Cowell serves as treasurer for the organization.
“Each year, the Foundation receives twenty to thirty applications for funding from community organizations,” he said. “We review each application and award funding based on the merit of the project and its impact on the community. It is always difficult to decide which projects to support because all of them have merit.”
The foundation supports organizations that serve youth, persons with disabilities, low income and those with special needs. Grants generally range from $500 to $1,000 each and the funds are distributed at a pre-festival Seafood Taster. This year’s grants will be awarded at the group’s August 13 meeting.
The Foundation makes grants once per year, and like many other community organizations, Marquette West Rotary receives requests throughout the year.
For this reason, the organization has combined a raffle with the Seafood Festival. The Seafood Fest raffle tickets are $5 each and proceeds are used to make community-need grants. Tickets are sold in advance of the festival as well as at the festival. Drawing for the prizes will be held on Saturday afternoon. First prize is $2,500 in cash, second prize is a $500 gift certificate from Jandron’s Fine Jewelry, third prize is a $250 MC Sports gift certificate and fourth is a Jazz kayak. Raffle tickets are available from any Marquette West Rotary member and MC Sports at the Westwood Mall.
“We have been very lucky that local merchants such as Jandron’s and MC Sports have supported our raffle,” says raffle coordinator Ellen Sargent. “Their generous support has allowed us to raise money for community need grants that benefit a variety of local organizations. We tried the raffle as an experiment last year, and decided that we can raise additional funds that allow is to make small grants throughout the year.”
Marquette West Rotary meets at noon each Wednesday at the Landmark Inn. Co-presidents for 2008 are Chris Wilkinson and Mark Canale. Membership is open to any adult.
More information about the club and a schedule of Seafood Festival events can be found at
—Pam Christiansen
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