RACINE — Jim LaFortune has some friendly advice for anyone who wants to see the annual Salmon-A-Rama fishing tournament and festival carry on in its present form: Show up at the festival starting Saturday, when the nine-day event officially starts at Pershing Park.
“The future of the festival is dependent on the success of this year,” LaFortune said. “That’s exactly what it is.”
Otherwise, the SAR chairman contends, this will likely be the final year when a festival is held in conjunction with this fishing tournament. It’s simply becoming too costly, he said, and adds that he believes the City of Racine is consistently doing little to promote the long-term viability of the festival.
“They’re walking us back and blocking us every step we take,” said LaFortune, who is in his sixth year as SAR chairman.
And that could mean SAR undergoing a major metamorphosis starting in 2020.
“I don’t want people to think the (fishing) tournament is in jeopardy,” he said. “The tournament will maintain the tournament and create a profit. The tournament is not the issue. The festival is the issue.”
Tensions were heightened in February when SAR organizers learned that their rental fees for using Pershing Park would double for 2019. Racine Mayor Cory Mason later recommended that the rent remain at $3,200 rather than $8,900 after his staff checked the minutes from last fall’s budget hearings and discovered that Parks and Recreation Director Tom Molbeck did not submit a fee schedule for 2019 for City Council approval.
“Out of a sense of fairness and transparency for everybody, I think it’s really important that if (the Parks Department) wants to make those changes, those are really changes that the council should approve, ideally through the budget,” Mason said at the time.
But more than four months later, LaFortune remains frustrated at what he sees as a lack of commitment for a non-profit event.
“I’m actually relieved, to be honest with you,” LaFortune said when asked about the festival being discontinued after this year. “I have struggled and fought so much with the city and the Common Council and the aldermen and the lack of them wanting this event in Racine has been absolutely horrendous.
“I have personally been on other boards for fishing clubs in other areas and I never seen an area fight so hard to make money off a non-profit organization. Really, every direction we turn, they’re just hitting us with right and left blows.”
LaFortune said the expense for putting on the festival is between $40,000 and $50,000. Expenses include $3,200 for rental of the grounds, $10,000 for rental of the tent, $15,000 for entertainment, $7,000 for promotion, $5,000 for a sound system, $4,000 for food, $2,000 for beer and $1,000 for soda and water.
It has reached a point, he said, where attendance no longer supports the expenses of having the festival.
“Right now, we can’t actually support the festival because there’s not enough of an attraction to bring people down,” LaFortune said. “We have little events here and there to fill in, but overall, there’s not that main attraction to get the people from the city down there.
“So we’re not generating a revenue like they did 20 years ago when there were 5,000 people down there a night. On the weekdays, we might average 100 to 150 people for the whole day. On the weekends, you might be up to 400 or 500.
“We’re into this for 30- or 40,000 before we even serve a hot dog. And the lack of sponsorship and the lack of support is why we can’t continue. We’re not making money at the festival.”
City, Real Racine respond
When Shannon Powell, communications director for the Office of the Mayor, was made aware of LaFortune’s comments Thursday afternoon, he responded with this email:
“Salmon-A-Rama is obviously a very popular event and the City of Racine would like to continue being its home. If you grew up in Racine, like I did, you know Salmon-A-Rama is in the city’s DNA. The Parks Department works closely with the SAR team each year as they put together the festival. As SAR evaluates their plans for next year, I know the Parks Department would like the opportunity to work with them in hopes of keeping the event in Racine.”
Dave Blank, president and CEO of Real Racine, the county’s tourism promotion agency, emphasized that everything comes at a cost — even for nonprofit organizations.
“There are rules and maybe back in the day, the city fathers and those who had influence just kind of looked the other way on different things,” he said. “But we work with the Parks Department on lots of events and there are rules you have to abide by or they won’t bless the event. That’s just kind of the way it is.
“You’re not going to get things for free because you’re Salmon-A-Rama. You can’t come in and say, ‘I’m a nonprofit organization,’ or ‘I’m Salmon-A-Rama.’ That’s not going to get you a free venue.
“I think the city has a fair price for those venues. I see where they (SAR) have moved to Pershing Park, which is probably one of the lowest-priced venues around. But you’re not going to get anything for free. If you did it for Salmon-A-Rama, there would be a whole lot of other events lined up behind them.”
Fishing looks promising
Meanwhile, LaFortune expects favorable fishing conditions now that things have settled down following a cold, rainy spring.
“Over the last two weeks, a real good thermocline has set up,” LaFortune said. “There’s been some real good catches in 120 to 160 feet of water straight out of Racine. The chinook have been a little bit bigger than what we’ve seen. There’s several fish that that 25- to 28-pound area. The big change for us is the thermocline has real set up nicely over the last week to two weeks.”
What’s LaFortune’s prediction?
“It should be a very productive week for fishing,” he said. “If I had to guess, I think we’re going to be in that 30- to 33-pound range for the winner.”