Organizers cancel Fish Day amid host of challenges

Festival ‘on hiatus’ this summer as group re-evaluates; clubs may step in with smaller Fishtival-like event

Port Washington's Veterans Park was filled with people for Fish Day last summer. Organizers have canceled this year's event and are re-evaluating the future of Port's premiere festival. Press file photo
Ozaukee Press staff

There will not be a Fish Day this summer, organizers announced Tuesday, and the future of the festival is unclear.

Fish Day President Mary Monday said Tuesday that after 58 years, the board of directors decided to put the city’s largest festival “on hiatus.”

“We need to take a step back and re-evaluate,” Monday said. “We’re not going under. We’re not folding.

“At this juncture, we’re just going to listen to what the community has to say and what the city has to say. Down the road, we will see what direction it will take.”

While the festival is going to “sunset,” organizers said, Fish Day Inc. will continue to exist. Monday said the corporation, name and its nonprofit status are being maintained “so it can be picked up again and go.”

The festival’s board of directors made the announcement  “with heavy hearts,” she said, and after significant contemplation.

“We’ve been batting this around for quite some time,” said Monday, who has been chairman of the Fish Day board since 1993. “This isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to any one thing.”

The reasons, Monday said, are myriad and include everything from a lack of volunteers, both on the Fish Day committee and the civic groups that operate the food and beverage stands, to difficulty in obtaining funding for the festival.

“There are going to be some sad people. There are going to be some happy people. I just hope people realize what Fish Day and the civic groups have done for the city and the community in creating traditions through the years that people have celebrated.”

Mayor Ted Neitzke said the news was a surprise when he heard it Tuesday.

“I’m very disappointed. I’m frustrated. I’m sad. It (Fish Day) has been a tradition my entire life. It’s who we are.

“Everybody’s got a story — their first Fish Day and they ended up at Schooner’s.  I met my wife on Fish Day. I got to ride in a Corvette in the parade with Ronald McDonald the year before McDonald’s came to town.”

Equally important, he said, is the role Fish Day has played in the community’s development as service clubs, which operated the Fish Day stands, reinvested their profits in the community.

“You look around Port and you can point to Rotary Park, Lions Park, glasses for kids, scholarships — all those things,” Neitzke said. “My heart hurts for Portal (which holds a fundraising run on Fish Day each year).

“It’s fundamental to supporting the service organizations in the city.”

Neitzke said he wished the Fish Day board had reached out to the city earlier.

“As far as I’m concerned, the City of Port Washington would do anything to support the future of our traditions, but no one ever asked,” he said. “Had I been given the option, I’d move mountains to help them. I’m committed to doing whatever I can to keep our tradition going.

“I know we have a changing time, but we have a community that rises to the occasion. We will work with any other nonprofit that wants to put on an event that third Saturday in July.”

While Fish Day won’t be held this year, there may be an alternative.

Dave Mueller, a member of the Port Lions Club who was successful in organizing Fishtival, a service club-driven alternative when Fish Day wasn’t held due to the pandemic, said he will work to provide some sort of event in the absence of Fish Day.

“There’s an opportunity for reinvention,” he said. “What I would like is a collaboration with the City and (Port) Main Street.

“We need to find out what people want and go from there. I’m not going to promise we’ll have a parade. I’m not going to say we’ll have fireworks. But I think we can keep some sort of an event people can come home for.”

After Fishtival and last year’s Fish Day, Mueller said, many people reached out to ask how they can help with the event.

“We have to figure out how to bring the community together,” he said.

Fish Day has been a staple of summer since it began in 1964, drawing crowds that number into the tens of thousands.

It has become a day for people to return to their hometown, a day when class reunions are held and families gather. Hotels are booked up a year in advance, and require two-day minimum stays.

Port’s signature event began when a group of businessmen got together to find a way to celebrate the city’s fishing heritage. They came up with Fish Day and patterned it after Sheboygan’s popular Brat Day.

The Common Council allocated $3,000 for the festival, and the festival dubbed the world’s largest one day outdoor fish fry was born.

While the festival has drawn thousands of people and been a significant source of fundraising for the civic groups through the years, Monday said there have been challenges that piled up.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of the festival, she said, and the committee and service clubs are all finding their membership declining as their members age. While Miller Brewing used to provide as many as 100 volunteers to help out, that support has also been waning, she said.

A number of the Fish Day committee members have resigned for a variety of reasons as well, she said.

“It’s a societal change,” Monday said.

So, too, were the many requirements Fish Day has to incorporate, everything from added security to wristbands. Where the city used to provide numerous services at no cost, the festival has been charged with paying for those in recent years, she said.

Fish Day is an expensive festival, Monday added, estimating the total cost, including in-kind contributions and sponsorships, at close to $500,000.

Since the pandemic, she added, sponsorships have been harder to come by as businesses tightened their purse strings.

“It really comes down to the community’s priorities have changed,” she said, adding the board will reassess the status of Fish Day as time goes on.

Fish Day, she said, won’t come back “until we see enough change that it remains a viable event.”


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