'Granddaddy' of fish fries could be canceled for 2011
By Chuck Sterling
The South Haven Sportsmen's Club Fish Fry could be canceled next April for the first time in 73 years if the club can't find a place to hold it, an official says. The event, a South Haven institution that attracts more than 1,000 people to town, has been held in the South Haven City Hall basement every year since 1938. But the city locked up the 77-year-old building in September after it was declared potentially unsafe because of structural problems. Sportsmen's Club members will consider other locations at a special meeting next month, but moving it out of town presents problems. "That's just about a 50 percent chance right now," club treasurer Jack Sunderland said last week about the possibility the 2011 fish fry will be canceled. "It just depends on if we've got a viable option that will work." The club, which promotes the event as "the granddaddy" of fish fries, wants to keep its consecutive-year streak alive, said Sunderland, who believes it's the longest continuously running annual fish fry in Central Minnesota if not the entire state. "It's way too late" to repair the old building or build a new one before Friday, April 1, when the 73rd annual event would take place, he said. That echoed city administrator Carol Banken, who said last month there's not enough time. "There's no way we can get through all the hoops," she said. The South Haven City Council has been talking for some time about tearing down the city hall and constructing a community building on the site, but an obstacle surfaced more than a year ago when an evaluation found it's eligible to be on the National Register of Historic Places. Then a condition assessment to determine whether it can be rehabilitated or whether the city can go ahead and demolish it found several structural failures and said the building shouldn't be considered safe. The city stopped renting it, moved Banken's office to a temporary location and closed up the building until it's either refurbished or a new one is built, but the process of resolving the obstacle to demolition has been slow going. The club will meet Friday, Dec. 3, to decide what to do, Sunderland said, and members have been asked to suggest options it can pursue. One member is already checking into the possibility of moving the fish fry to the Generations Ballroom, formerly Playland, in Kimball. But changing locations would result in losing about a third of the customers, and it takes a lot of advertising to get the word out, he said. "You really have to lay a barrage of advertising down," though word-of-mouth might help. Whether the Kimball ballroom or another location would work depends on whether it has enough cooking equipment. The fish fry has used three large restaurant stoves in the city hall to keep up with demand, and it can't afford to spend $3,000 or $4,000 to buy additional equipment when it makes only about $2,500 on the event, Sunderland said. The South Haven Fire Hall doesn't have enough equipment, he said, and the club would have to buy more deep fryers. Also, the city would have to allow the fire trucks to be moved out of the building during the fish fry. "We don't like the idea of moving out of South Haven," he said. The night of the fish fry is a busy one since it brings in a lot of business. "It's got to cost the city too, not just us." If the 73rd annual fish fry were canceled, the club would plan to bring it back the following year, Sunderland said. The South Haven Fire Department usually holds its smelt fry in the city hall on the first Saturday in May, but it isn't sure where it will take place next year, Fire Chief Oscar Laney said. The department will discuss that at its regular December meeting. It may use the fire hall, he said. The department can borrow deep fryers through a member, and the smelt fry is a smaller event than the fish fry.