Virus claims Fish Day, civic group revenue

First-ever cancellation of Port’s largest festival will cost service organizations money they invest in city

FISH DAY, Port Washington’s largest festival and a significant source of revenue for the civic organizations that operate fish and chips stands, is being canceled this year due to the coronavirus. The decision comes on the heels of last year’s fest, which was plagued by rainstorms. Press file photo
Ozaukee Press staff

The organizers of Fish Day, Port Washington’s largest festival, announced this week they are canceling the July 18 event due to the coronavirus pandemic — the first time the fest has been canceled in its 56-year history.

The impact of the decision will reach far beyond the festival itself. Fish Day is the largest fundraiser for the civic groups that staff the festival’s fish and chips stands, and they use that money to fund everything from community projects to scholarships.

It will also impact the city’s businesses, particularly the hotels that are booked far in advance for the festival, and the restaurants and shops visitors frequent before leaving the next day.

“It was a hard decision,” Mary Monday, chairman of the Fish Day Board of Directors, said. “There’s no end to who’s going to be impacted. A lot of people aren’t happy about it, but it’s encouraging to see the people who say we are sad but we understand.”

Fish Day is iconic, drawing tens of thousands of people to the city each year, Port Mayor Marty Becker said, and its cancellation will have a domino effect on the community.

“It will be a challenge for the civic groups,” he said. “I totally understand where they’re coming from, but it is a challenge for everyone.”

Fish Day is just one of many summer events that are being canceled this year due to the coronavirus, he said, and others are in limbo yet.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with the farmers market. We don’t know what will happen with the beer gardens yet,” Becker said, noting many of the same nonprofit groups that run Fish Day stands also host beer gardens. 

Jim Johnson, president of the Port Lions Club, said that while Fish Day’s decision wasn’t unexpected, it will make a difference for the club, which earns “a nice chunk” of its revenue each year through the stand.

That is money the club invests in scholarships and projects such as the Lions pavilion and Centennial Pavilion at the beer garden in Upper Lake Park, the Port Washington Food Pantry and other endeavors.

“We will have to find a way to decrease spending or increase our fundraising,” Johnson said. 

The club is looking at other fundraisers, he said, especially since its Lions Fest is held just two weeks after Fish Day.

“It’s a different environment and we’ll have to navigate through,” Johnson said.

Likewise, the St. John XXIII Men’s Club and Port Washington Rotary Club are looking at their options now that Fish Day is canceled.

“We have to see how we might be able to compensate for this,” Robert Fechner, Rotary’s Fish Day chairman, said. 

Fish Day, he said, is “absolutely” the club’s largest fundraiser, one it depends on to help support community organizations.

“We’ll have to look at our options. We still have the beer garden, but there will be an impact,” Fechner said. “The last word has not been spoken.” 

Mike Keller, a member of the St. John XXIII Parish Men’s Club, said of Fish Day’s cancellation: “It’s going to hurt.

“It’s going to have far-reaching impact. There’s nothing good about it except that everyone’s in the same place and everyone can relate to it.”

Fish Day brings in 60% to 70% of the club’s funds for the year, Keller said, money that the club invests in everything from the two Boy Scout troops it sponsors to the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, Character Counts program, Port Washington Historical Society, American Cancer Society and Feed My Starving Children.

The loss of Fish Day is especially acute for the organization because the coronavirus forced the Men’s Club to cancel the last of its Lenten fish fries, Keller said.

“We’ll get through this,” he said. “The organizations will have less money this year, but we’ll get through it.”

The Fish Day committee didn’t make the decision lightly, Bruce Manderscheid, Fish Day general chairman, said, but the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus made it the right decision.

“Fish Day cannot go on without the help of our civic organizations, sponsors and guests who at this time are financially focused on the well being of their families,” he said. 

“It’s very difficult to fundraise now when so many of our business owners are concerned about keeping their businesses afloat and maintaining their employees.”

Many of the volunteers who staff the stands are older, in the population most likely to be hit hard by the virus, Manderscheid added.

“Are we going to have the volunteer pool we need?” he asked.

Even if the current restrictions on group gatherings and social distancing recommendations are lifted, he said, many volunteers and guests may be concerned about attending a large festival.

“We are respecting the concerns that have been expressed by our guests and volunteers who are wary of joining together in a large crowd so soon after the (Safer at Home) mandates may be lifted.”

If the crowds stayed away, Manderscheid said, it would have put both Fish Day and the civic organizations in a bad situation, especially since last year rains kept the crowds away and profits down.

“If we had taken another hit this year, it would have been very difficult to keep Fish Day going next year,” he said.

Postponing Fish Day wasn’t an option, Manderscheid added.

“Trying to find another weekend that would work would have been difficult,” he said. “It’s a tradition that Fish Day is held on the third Saturday in July. People plan their summers, their class reunions, around that.”

It was time for the committee to make a decision about Fish Day, Manderscheid added.

“It’s 90 days out. If we had delayed it into May, we would be almost at the point of no return. This is the best thing for Fish Day and the future of the festival.”

Monday concurred, saying, “it’s such a fluid situation. We could  have waited a couple weeks (to make a decision) but I’m not certain that would have made a difference. The coronavirus is affecting everyone and everything. This is beyond our control.”


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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