Surprised by the sudden, unexpected cancellation of a major winter tourism draw, businesses and officials in Walker, Minn., are scrambling to come up with an alternative to the International Eelpout Festival, whose organizers announced Thursday that it would not be held this year.
The festival, which was scheduled for Feb. 20-23, often draws 10,000 or more people to the Cass County city of about 930 residents on the shore of Leech Lake.
The loss of the festival is a blow to local businesses, which have counted on the event to attract visitors during a slow time of year.
“The impact is greatly felt by us, as well as by other businesses,” said Colette Huston, director of sales for the Chase on the Lake Resort, a full-service, 115-room facility that offers dining, a spa and a variety of other activities. The resort is on Walker Bay, the traditional home of the Eelpout Festival.
“I do think that we as a community will begin brainstorming other opportunities where we can collaborate and maybe create another type of event,” she added.
The cancellation of the festival, which got its start in 1979, “took everyone by surprise,” said Jesse Westberg, the resort’s general manager. Chase on the Lake had no official connection with the festival, but as a nearby business, it sought to offer its own attractions to festival visitors.
Westberg said the resort plans to go ahead with its commitments for live entertainment during what would have been the long festival weekend, including an appearance by the popular Johnny Holm Band. The resort is working with the city to get the permits to move its events onshore. Chase plans to make a presentation to the City Council at its meeting Monday night.
“We’re committed to the great live entertainment,” Westberg said.
In a Facebook message, festival organizers blamed the costs of sanitation and cleanup, as well as what they called “county requirements that change and increase every year,” for their decision to pull the plug. Others in Walker mentioned fluctuating weather patterns in recent years, which have sometimes left the ice unsafe for trucks and heavy fish houses.
Walker Mayor Jed Shaw said he supports efforts to continue with activities even in the absence of the festival.
“Replacing it in part, I think, is a pretty good idea,” he said. “We do support the Chase.”
Shaw noted that ice conditions this year “have already started off pretty poorly, so we already have some concerns.”
During the festival’s history, he said, it’s been held onshore on a number of occasions, so going to an onshore festival isn’t an untried idea.
No matter what, Shaw hopes someone will keep the event going.
“I don’t want to see Eelpout go away,” he said, “if we can figure it out and make it work, given some of the challenges with trash issues and environmental issues. The lake is our No. 1 natural resource and it’s hugely important to us.
“As a city, we are used to throwing parties,” Shaw said. “It’s a big part of what we do. And it’s nice to have a big event in the winter when it’s slower.”