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Future of Turtle Fest uncertain

The fate of Turtle Fest is up in the air after leading organizers announced their desire to pass the torch. File photo

The fate of Turtle Fest is up in the air after leading organizers announced their desire to pass the torch.

After just a few years at the helm, Perham Lions Club members Gary Senske and Nick Theroux said last week that they’re ready to hand it over to someone else.

The bulk of the work involved in planning Turtle Fest falls on the shoulders of too few people, they said, requiring countless hours of time and energy from them. Those few people – all volunteers – end up devoting an exhaustive amount of effort to the nine-day event.

At the same time, they face what feels to them like a frustrating lack of community support for the festival, especially financial support from the business sector. While the cultural and commercial value of Turtle Fest should speak for itself, Senske said, a surprising number of local businesses and organizations have refused or resisted his fundraising efforts.

If Turtle Fest continues in the future, the Perham Lions want to remain involved, and will at minimum continue to fund the three annual activities that the club has traditionally backed – the motorcycle ride, demo derby and Thursday night entertainment act.

However, Senske said the centralized leadership, structure, communications and accounting that the club has provided in the past is now on the fence.

“The Lions are in a situation where some of the members are stepping down from their former responsibilities,” he explained. “We’re looking for someone else to take this on... We’re looking for people to come forward and say that Turtle Fest is a good event that brings good things to the town and businesses; to say that Turtle Fest is something they want to fund so that it can function and move forward.”

Senske and Theroux are willing to stay on long enough to ensure a smooth transition. In order for that to happen, they said, another organization or individual in the community will need to step forward and accept the challenge, and soon.

It’s a new situation for the Lions Club, but Perham Chamber Executive Director Dan Schroeder said it’s not new to the community.

“This is history repeating itself,” he said, “because the same thing happened about four years ago, when previous organizers got fed up with it. The last group found the same thing – community support was lacking.”

Before that group, the Chamber was responsible for Turtle Fest, but Schroeder said the Chamber’s staffing level and resources were not enough to sustain a high quality festival. In addition, the effort did not directly align with the Chamber’s mission of promoting and advocating for Perham businesses.

Ultimately, Schroeder said, it’s up to the community “to step forward and support this event.”

And that wouldn’t take much, at least financially, according to Senske.

The festival runs on an annual budget of $52,000, he said. That includes all costs associated with the grand parade and other entertainment and activities, as well as advertising, insurance, liability and miscellaneous expenses. Of that total, what’s needed from the community (excluding major donors) is $18,000-20,000.

Raising this amount of money could easily be done if half of the roughly 400 businesses in town contributed the suggested donation of $100, Senske said, but in recent years about 70 businesses have been making contributions, usually in the range of $25-50 – an amount that’s still appreciated, but all together it doesn’t add up to cover festival costs.

In recent years, Turtle Fest has been financially supported mainly through sizable contributions from a select few large businesses in town and the Lions Club itself. Last year, the total cost to the Lions Club was $6,000, more than any other business or organization in town – and club members say the community continues to expect more.

In addition to the need for increased financial support, Senske and Theroux agreed that, in order to have a successful event that can continue to grow and thrive into the future, Turtle Fest needs a solid, centralized hub, a group capable of handling the festival’s finances and communications.

After that’s established, others in the community need to come together to take on elements of the festival.

“The event structure is a doable project if the community works together as a whole, with each organization working within their niche,” said Theroux. The bars in town could oversee the street dance, for example, and the Perham Center for the Arts could take over the entertainment piece.

“I know people want the event; the main problem is lack of funds,” said Senske. “We need more community support, and that involves funding, and people participation, and individuals making this a community event so that the event doesn’t rely on just one organization to make it happen.”

Turtle Fest brings an estimated 10,000 people into Perham every year, said Schroeder: “It’s time to ask the community, is Turtle Fest of value? Is it worth supporting?”

Anyone interested in volunteering, or in sharing ideas about Turtle Fest’s future, should call Gary Senske at 218-841-7660.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Perham Focus more than five years ago, and has since worn many hats as writer, editor and page designer. She lives in rural Frazee with her husband, Dan, their one-year-old son, Simon, and their yellow lab, Louisa. 

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