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Chamber cancels this year's seafood festival

The Baltimore Sun

The Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce has canceled the Maryland Seafood Festival this year, citing concerns that it would not break even in the unsettled economy.

Chamber officials worried that people looking to cut back on expenses would pass on the festival, which funds itself primarily with ticket sales. They also predicted rising fuel costs would limit the event's regional draw.

"Our concern is the direction the economy was going will have an impact," said chamber President Bob Burdon. "We did not want to risk the solvency of the festival."

Roadwork on Route 50 near Sandy Point State Park, where the event takes place, compounded fears about lower attendance. In all, event planners expected it to fall by more than 20 percent, Burdon said.

The state created the event, originally known as the Maryland Clam Festival, 42 years ago to promote the seafood industry and soon thereafter passed responsibility onto the Chamber of Commerce.

In the ensuing decades, the festival grew from a minor local attraction into a regional event that draws 15,000 visitors a year.

While it makes about $400,000 in revenues, profit margins are razor-thin. Half the intake goes to charitable organizations that sell food at the event, and most of the rest pays the event's costs. The chamber had to spend $2,000 of its own money to meet shortfalls last year, and officials there feared it would not have enough in reserves to save the event if met with major failure this year.

"We could potentially lose $130,000 -- we don't have a third of that in reserves," Burdon said.

Among those who will miss the festival are the small charitable and nonprofit organizations that make thousands of dollars each year serving up fried fish at the September festival.

Nancy Koval, who co-chaired last year's festival and represented Boy Scout Troop 495, said the cancellation would deliver a blow to groups such as hers.

"It would take a lot of car washes and bake sales to even come close to making up for the loss," she said via e-mail.

She said organizations had already been coping with the Chamber of Commerce taking a larger share of revenues in recent years.

Chamber officials said they sympathized with the nonprofits, but added that going ahead this year would have risked crippling the festival and the chamber itself.

"Our membership wants us to help promote an environment where business can thrive. They certainly don't want us to jeopardize our future, our ability to do that, by losing a lot of money on a seafood festival," said Larry Uvila, chairman of the chamber's board and CEO of Insurance Solutions Inc.

The chamber decided against other options, including a downsized event, figuring that offering visitors less than they had expected would do more damage than canceling it altogether.

Festival-goers will also miss Capital-Gazette Newspapers' annual Crab Soup Cook-off, which takes place at the festival each year and raises money for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Celebrity chef John Shields, who has hosted the cook-off for more than a decade, said he was "shocked" to hear the festival was canceled.

"It's a shame because I think it's one of the best events in the region," he said. "I hope it's just a one-year postponement."

Uvila and Burdon stressed the event will return. The chamber has already reserved Sandy Point State Park for Sept. 11-13, 2009, and Burdon said there would be improvements, including healthier food options. The chamber will also be looking for ways to fix the festival's business model, perhaps by reducing dependence on tickets sales in favor of more sponsorship.

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