What Happens Now?
Local Groups Consider Effect of No Oyster Festival
By Dagmar Fors Karppi
Local non-profit groups are looking at their options as they consider Year 2001 without an Oyster Festival.
The official notice from the Oyster Bay Chamber of Commerce arrived after the Oyster Bay Enterprise-Pilot went to press on Feb. 5. It said: "At the Oyster Bay Chamber of Commerce meeting on Feb. 1, 2001 the board of directors resolved to bypass the 2001 Oyster Festival and to begin planning for a revamped 2002 Oyster Festival. The purpose of this hiatus is so that the chamber can begin to re-examine its mission.
"There are several reasons why we have chosen to do this at this time. Over the last several years we have repeatedly requested assistance in running the Oyster Festival from those who benefited most, this includes the merchants and the nonprofits. The response was limited.
"Alcohol has become an increasing problem, and one that has become noticed by our sponsors. Several of whom have withdrawn their support of the Oyster Festival until this issue is addressed.
"The board feels we need to take a step back, address all the issues of the running of the festival, and come back in 2002 with a restructured festival.
"We regret any hardship this may cause, but felt this was a necessary action."
Local groups are considering what to do next. Many options are being considered including the possibility of another organization taking over the running of the festival. Since the Oyster Festival has become a controversial issue, it is important that the community let their opinion be heard. They can write to the chamber or send letters to the editor to this newspaper.
Local resident Reginald Butt, who is active in the VFW, American Legion and Lions has an interesting opinion. "Personally, as a member of a non-profit I think the festival is a good idea. As a resident, it clogs the street I live on. Two cars can't pass to go up and down the hill. Driveways are blocked. I'm torn between two opinions: yes and no," he said.
"Is it worth it for the nonprofits from the standpoint of what we make, yes, it allows us to give to very good causes. From the standpoint of the Lions, it is worth it," said Mr. Butt.
Reggie Butt, has worked at all 17 festivals, as a member of the Lions. He said the VFW sold souvlaki, one year, then dropped out and came back with calamari and chips. "There were only a couple of guys working with an outside vendor," said Reggie Butt, "Still, the funds added up. We have to find ways to make up for lack of the Oyster Festival funds. The problem is the guys are getting older and can't put the time and hours in and it gets harder to do. Still, for the VFW, it's not something we have to rely on totally."
The American Legion never participated in the Oyster Festival. "We sell poppies and bring in quite a bit of money with them. We also hold raffles," he said.
It is the Lions he sees as being most impacted by the loss of the Oyster Festival, Mr. Butt said,
"The Lions worked from the very first one and it is our biggest fund raiser for the year. All the money goes into the Public Fund account and we distribute it in June to the Guide Dogs Foundation and local group and a vacation camp for the blind, so it's going to hurt. We had three booths this year.
"There was one big one where we sold oyster stew and kilbasi; another with blooming onions; and another with corn on the cob. It was a lot of work."
Competition for Charity Dollars
Mr. Butt said if the festival doesn't continue, then without that revenue, the nonprofit groups will be bumping into each other as they solicit funds from the community. "The Oyster Festival money is from out of town and is not relying on townspeople to provide it, and the other fund raisers all rely on in-town dollars. Groups also share mailing lists," he added.
There are problems though, since all the groups are having trouble finding a work force. He said, "at Lions we make the stew. It takes three days to prepare for the weekend."
He said like Mt. Olive, and the Italian-American Ladies Auxiliary, more groups are relying on outside vendors which he said, is not as much fun. "It becomes more of a task, but still, the money is there for our fund raisers and that is what we count on. Before, you were talking back and forth between the booths. The Italian-American club would bring sausages over and we'd bring them stew. Now with the big crowds we can't get to each other. This year we had radios and they would say 'I need help' and you couldn't get through the crowds to help," he said.
He suggested moving the location to Firemen's Field or TR park and to spread it out. "That might stop the businesses closing. People would go past the stores in town and the festival wouldn't block them," he said.
Unfortunately, the town has previously said they don't want the festival in the park for fear that rain might ruin the grass.
"In the park it becomes an alcohol free event so you would take some of the problem area away because you can't tell the delis and the bars not to do what they do all year long. The idea was bringing business into town and that's their business. That's what they have to sell. Another issue is that the delis have no seating. They can't keep their customers inside," he said.
"The Lions Club pancake breakfast is on March 4 at DBSC, but for the past 17 years, the Oyster Festival has been our mainstay," said Mr. Butt.
He was also leery of the result of stopping the festival in 2001. "Once you stop, it's very hard to start again. The Danbury Fair got too big and stopped for a year and never came back. Things have to change. There needs to be some compromises."
Weather or Not
The festival weather has been a challenge for groups. "The Lions were very lucky in the Nor'easter of 1992. The Lions made back their expenses serving the hot stew that stormy day when we stayed open. The next day was all profit. One year we were ankle deep in water cooking stew. When you put out $1,500, to over $2,000 for the costs with the awareness that with two rainy days you can get wiped out and you can't turn things over."
Mr. Butt said the time of year, the weekend after Columbus Day was dictated by Southland, the owners of 7-Eleven who sponsored the bike race tour. "We were the last stop on the tour," he said.
October is also the month the oysters are most succulent.
OB-EN Soccer Club
Over the past weekend, it was hard getting in touch with Sal Albanese, treasurer of the Oyster Bay-East Norwich Soccer Club. He had two back-to-back games on Saturday and a game on Sunday night at 9 p.m. His wife Maria, who is the travel coordinator of the club said, the lack of the Oyster Festival "Will hurt the club tremendously but we will have to make up the money with other fund raisers. We just got the news this week so we haven't discussed it as a board yet, as to what we will do," she said.
The money they make by selling food at their two booths at the festival: Philly Steak sandwiches and apple pie a la mode. The money goes toward keeping the fees down and for the intramural and travel programs and clinics held four Saturdays a year, as part of the club. The fees include insurance, uniforms and equipment. Travel is another expense of the group, she added.
This year they had club volunteers do the lining for the fields they use at Vernon.
"As the club gets bigger, with more kids and more teams, we need fields. We are doing well as we are, but for this spring we are trying to get an extra field. We are not sure where, but we hope to get one," she said.
Interestingly, the National Historic Preservation Group counts as one of the guidelines in creating a revitalized downtown is a major festival.
Oyster Bay Mainstreet Association President David Lamb said at some point, the MA might be involved in creating events, but not an Oyster Festival. "First, it's not a high priority. Secondly there are other people who perhaps would be better suited to do it. We have an organization with experience in running the Oyster Festival." Still, he said "That doesn't mean there aren't other ways to attract the public. Other ways should be explored to find the greatest good for the greatest number of people. I think that people who want to be responsible for creating money for nonprofits probably have to be more creative in making public events that have limited impact on merchants in downtown and at the same time maximizing profits for nonprofits.
"I would be perfectly happy to have some kind of event that brings in lots of people but it has to impact less on local merchants. I think events are healthy, add vitality to the town and bring people together but we have to be careful about the culture it brings with it," he said.
FOB, Denise Woodin, executive director of Friends of the Bay thought about the Oyster Festival hiatus and said, "I know a lot of people have problems with the festival, but others raise funds through it. I wish there was a way people could talk about the problems and see what can be done. I think there are a lot of good things about it and it shouldn't be scrapped."
John McGrane, manager of the Oyster Bay Marine Center has volunteered his area as the venue for the Antique Boat Show that has become a part of the annual event. Boaters consider the festival as their end of the year event, and enjoy coming to Oyster Bay. They hold a dinner on the Saturday night of the festival, usually at the Sagamore Yacht Club.
Mr. McGrane said, the Oyster Festival just got out of hand. He suggested a smaller festival somewhere along the waterfront dealing with the oysters and the marine environment. "It was such a drain on our docks and for our customers." Some had to relocate their boats during the festival.
"A smaller low key, non-alcoholic festival would be more fun for the local residents and the community and would be more of what this town is really about."
He said the Western Waterfront would be a great place for a festival. "We always donated our docks, but as soon as the Western Waterfront is ready we hope that will be used," he said.
Last year as news came that the Providence was going to be at the festival, there was a hope that the Western Waterfront would be the location for it. Unfortunately the pier was deemed not safe for children and couldn't be used and be compliant with state rules.
Still the Center for Marine Education was able to take part in a marine education program for local high school students. The members of Interact came aboard for lessons.
Rob Crafa, director of the CME of OB said,
"The Center for Marine Education was also excited with the possibility of being able to work with the chamber of commerce again, in 2001, to welcome a tall ship and offer marine education programs for local school children as we did last year. We were excited about 2001 but we're not going to be able to do that.
"If there is no Oyster Festival, we'll continue our local programs but will just have to wait until 2002 to work with the chamber of commerce," he said.
Rob Crafa said it was a good time to put the focus back on oysters. He said when he is doing a touch tank full of critters from the bay: "I'm amazed at how people look over their kids shoulders and ask where did all this stuff come from and when they find it's from Oyster Bay they realize it is a productive and healthy harbor.
"Two blocks away from the oyster shucking contest are the oysters that come from the bay!"
He said, "Most people who come here don't even get to see the water!
"Maybe there is a creative way to showcase the hamlet," he said. Maybe this will stimulate ideas. "You don't know what you have until it's gone," said Rob Crafa.
Active in the community as a businessman, chamber member, Rotary president and past Oyster Festival chair, Tom Reardon said he was getting a mixed response from the community. "Some say yes and some say it should go and some say it can't go!
"There's been no organized outcry but I heard a lot of people saying it is vital to the community and any problems that the Oyster Festival had can be worked around. I believe that might be the case. I see that the book is still open."
In talking to Karen DeVine-Minicozzi, both a past president of the chamber and past chair of the festival said with the announcement of canceling the 2001 festival, "Hopefully everyone will get upset enough and now cooperate with the rules and cooperate with running the festival."
Keep a Great Thing Going
"I haven't met with the masters and lodge members, but I heard a comment that we are definitely interested in working together to see if we can keep this great thing going," said Warren Obes who has chaired the Matinecock Lodge Masons Oyster Festival booth and Oktoberfest garden.
"I'm curious about what develops in a couple of months," said Mr. Obes.
"I understand that the same group of people have been doing the lion's share of the work. They have run out of steam. Still, I'm optimistic that maybe the festival could be badly injured but not on life support. Maybe the patient won't survive this year but some people have said they were willing to help. That is a good thing.
"If they can get some new folks on board to help and see what happens.
The money the Masons have made is being used for their History Museum at the lodge on West Main Street. Both in acquiring more items for display; to promote the museum in the community; and to help pay some of the bills that the lodge incurs. He said many lodge buildings in New York State are falling into disrepair and being let go.
"We plan to use money for local scholarships. We made a couple of bucks in the 2000 festival and reached out to Rev. Nelson's church and made a donation. We are trying to take care of our expenses and make things better for Masons.
"The Oyster Festival is a lot of work, but a lot of fun too. I take exception to the comments about excessive alcohol and drunkenness at the festival and the comment that it is not as family oriented as the chamber hoped. I believe the operation the Masons run is the more family oriented venue because of the sense of control we ask our patrons to observe.
"It's a place to sit down with mom and pop and kids. Especially on that side of the festival."
"We've had a number of excellent years with the festival."
Of the decision to bypass year 2001, Mr. Obes said, "I was disappointed but not surprised because there was a lot of talk of it before. I can see both sides of the coin. There are divergent opinions on what it should include and not include.
"If the rules are clear and people participate in an orderly and controlled festival it should go on for years, but you need new blood to help," he said.
He was optimistic that the festival could keep on going. "You have a blueprint, It's almost repetitive. The one sticky point is enlisting the sponsors."
He said having just one food area creates bottlenecks. " I think it's important not to move it to the Firemen's Field parking lot or the beach. The festival gives people a chance to see the town. Maybe having walking tours that would encourage people to not stay in just one place would be good."
In recent years, the North Oyster Bay Baymen's Association has taken a booth at the festival. They sell fresh clams on the half shell taken right out of the harbor.
Tony Capozzoli, treasurer of the North Oyster Bay Baymen's Association said, "We make quite a bit of money at the Oyster Fest. We try to donate a lot of the money back to the community: to schools and churches that may need it for things like turkeys for Thanksgiving."
"We also replenish Oyster Bay with seed clams. We buy them when they are very small and nurture them until they grow in size so the predators can't get them and plant them around the bay at the end of November," he said.
Not having an Oyster Festival in 2001 is a little upsetting, he said. "I think they have enough time to do it. It's in October. I don't think there is any reason to cancel it."
He put some of it in perspective: "Part of problem is that some entities are making a profit and the Baymen (and other nonprofits) aren't profiting personally but try to make the community profit from it.
"The delis jack up the prices. (A glass of beer costs about $3.) It gets a little out of hand." He had a sympathetic take about the complaints. "The younger people: there are more of them attending, in their teens and 20s. They have a lot of energy. You'd think we could live with some of the harder things on account of I think the good outweighs the bad."
He added that if they do cancel the festival, there may be a lot of people who may not want to be a part of it again - that a feeling of bitterness would result.
"So, I have mixed emotions. I see what they are saying but whenever there is a project for the community you have to take the view that the good outweighs the bad," said the bayman.
Restaurants and Delis
Over the years, the Oyster Bay Enterprise Pilot has heard that many purveyors of beer pay their yearly rent on what they make from the Oyster Festival. That is what allows them to do business in Oyster Bay.
Another person commented that it was the restaurants that kept the town together as a marketplace and asked rhetorically, "Who will drive a half hour to go to a nail salon?" They are the second most duplicated business in Oyster Bay.