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UPDATED: Eelpout Festival to stay in Walker

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Eelpout Festival goers hitch a ride on a couch pulled by an ATV during the annual International Eelpout Festival on Leech Lake in February 2017. (File photo) 2 / 2

BEMIDJI -- Just days before the Bemidji City Council was slated to vote on formally opposing the International Eelpout Festival possible move to Lake Bemidji, organizers said Friday the event will stay on Leech Lake in Walker.

The announcement, made Friday via press release, comes about a month after organizers submitted a permit application to Beltrami County to hold the festival on the southern area of Lake Bemidji. According to the release, though, organizers were enticed to stay in Walker Bay by a new proposal from Chase on the Lake Resorts.

The new arrangement includes leveraging assistance from the resort’s third-party service provider, Leisure Hotels and Resorts, to improve operational management, planning and personnel, including additional staff and resources, the release said..

“We are committed to further nurturing our collaboration with the business leaders, residents and municipalities here in Walker,” Eelpout Festival Owner Jared Olson said in the release. “After investigating all options we felt were feasible to ensure the growth and sustainability of the event, we concluded that staying in Walker is the best interest of the festival and the nearly 12,000 people who attend every year.”

The International Eelpout Festival has been around for 38 years and routinely brings in thousands of people and thousands of dollars to Walker. However, in recent years, the festival has come under increased scrutiny because of post-event cleanup and parking issues. A fishing tournament, the International Eelpout Festival has grown much larger than a search for the bottom-dwelling eelpout. Spanning four days, the event is widely known for its party atmosphere and colorful camps on the ice and has drawn national and even international media coverage.

In early October, Eelpout organizers applied for a permit to move the festival from Leech Lake to Lake Bemidji.

On Oct. 17, Olson appeared before the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners to discuss the application, which was for a Tier II event permit, allowing for between 2,500-5,000 people.

Beltrami County’s ordinance divides event applications by tiers based on crowd sizes: Tier I is 1,000-2,500; Tier II is 2,500-5,000 and Tier III is any number more than 5,000. A Tier III application has to be submitted six months before the event, so Eelpout organizers opted for Tier II.

Eelpout Festival organizers were also looking into the idea of merging the event with Bemidji’s Winterfest. The Winterfest, the 2018 event will be the fifth, is a community event that includes 5K and 10K runs, a fishing tournament, pond hockey, a polar plunge and more.

At the county meeting, Olson said that organizers hoped to change the image of the festival to a clean, family friendly event. Olson said they selected Bemidji as a possible site because of its infrastructure, especially the potential to use the Sanford Center parking lot in case of thinner ice.

Response from the city

The Oct. 17 meeting with county commissioners was informational only, as the Beltrami County Planning Commission would approve or deny the application. And soon after news broke about a possible move to Bemidji, concerns were raised by local residents and officials.

Bemidji City Manager Nate Mathews said the main concerns centered around how the Eelpout Festival may affect the quality of Lake Bemidji.

Those concerns were based on extensive cleanup efforts followed the festival in previous years. In 2016, for example, the Cass County Environmental Services Department, Sheriff’s Office and Service Jail Inmates program helped clean up the lake area, picking up an estimated 900 pounds of trash.

In its application to Beltrami County, festival organizers said they intended to hire private companies to handle sewage management, garbage disposal and security. Additionally, organizers stated they would have a final inspection conducted after the event by Beltrami County officials and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Because of those concerns, Mathews said he met with City Attorney Alan Felix and Mayor Rita Albrecht to discuss the matter. As a result, a resolution opposing the event moving to Lake Bemidji was drafted by Felix and was set to be voted on Monday by the City Council.

The resolution included wording about the city’s requirements from state agencies regarding pollution prevention and also made note of recent efforts to improve shore quality, including $1.6 million in shoreline rehabilitation on the South Shore, close to where organizers hoped to hold the Eelpout Festival.

The resolution also states the “Mississippi River flowing out of Lake Irving into Lake Bemidji is typically open all year around and at times of the winter creates dangerous open water and/or ice conditions and a serious public safety risk in the proximity which is near to the proposed event site.”

The resolution also cited reasons for opposition aside from environmental.

The Eelpout Festival is “known to create multiple public safety and health issues regarding and relating to the excessive consumption of alcohol, trash/litter, parking concerns, drunk driving, public indecencies and a strain on local law enforcement and public works capacity,” the resolution reads.

“The council finds it unreasonable and irresponsible to allow an event that is counterproductive to the community’s state permit regarding practices and actions implemented to protect waters of Lake Bemidji and the Mississippi River,” the resolution also states. “The City Council opposes the request to host the International Eelpout Festival in 2018 and opposes the effort to relocate the festival to the ice of Lake Bemidji.”

In Friday’s press release, organizers said the 39th annual Eelpout Festival is set for Feb. 22-25. In the release, Leech Lake Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Cindy Wannarka praised the move to keep the event in Walker.

“Over the years the Eelpout Festival has proven to be irreplaceable both in terms of the branding and the economic boost to our community, so we’re quite thrilled that it’s staying in Walker,” Wannarka said. “It definitely gives us a vehicle to showcase what our city has to offer, especially during those winter months when we tend to need it most.”

Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

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