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Beltrami County Commissioners review Eelpout Fest application

The Beltrami County Board of Commissioners addressed the International Eelpout Festival's possible move to Bemidji during a meeting Tuesday.

The 38-year-old annual festival, usually held in late February at Walker Bay on Leech Lake routinely draws more than 10,000 people. But organizers may move the 2018 festival, and are considering Bemidji.

Organizers applied for a permit last week, asking Beltrami County for permission to hold the event on Lake Bemidji. During Tuesday's meeting, Environmental Services Director Brent Rud walked county officials through the application process.

The county has an ordinance that divides event applications by tiers based on crowd sizes. Tier I is 1,000-2,500 people; Tier II is 2,500-5,000 and Tier III is any number more than 5,000. A Tier III application, though, has to be submitted six months before the event.

As a result, Eelpout Festival organizers have opted to apply for a Tier II permit, meaning that a maximum of 5,000 people could be at the event at one time.

The permit application will next be reviewed by the Beltrami County Environmental Services Department and subsequently sent to agencies including these:

• The Beltrami County Sheriff's Office

• Minnesota State Patrol

• Beltrami County Health and Human Services

• Beltrami County Attorney's Office

• Minnesota Department of Health

• Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Additionally, Rud said copies of the permit application will be sent to the Bemidji Police Department, the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board and the Bemidji Public Works Department. After the information is provided to those agencies, the completed application will next be reviewed by the Beltrami County Planning Commission.

"The planning commission makes the decision and the only time the application would come before the board (of commissioners) is if there's an appeal on that decision," Rud said. "What we're providing today is just informational."

Questions about the past and future

Post-event cleanup for the Eelpout Festival has caused concern in recent years for Cass County. In 2016, the Cass County Environmental Services Department, sheriff's office and Service Jail Inmates program helped clean up the lake area, picking up an estimated 900 pounds of trash.

On Tuesday, commissioners raised concerns both about the cleanup and a potential increase in criminal activity.

"I do have a lot of concerns about that," said Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp on the latter. "So, one of the things we'll be doing is conducting a background investigation on the festival itself. I've already asked for some research to be done on data related to crimes that occur during the Eelpout in that area."

To address some of the concerns directly, event organizers included its plans for cleanup and safety in its application.

According to details provided by Rud, the organizers will hire a company called Wruck Sewer and Portable Rentals to handle sewage management during the event. Additionally, they plan to hire TVG Events to manage garbage disposal and have a final inspection with county and DNR officials the following Monday. For safety, the organizers would hire 20 private security personnel stationed at the main event area.

Other details from the application included the following:

• Having a maximum of 5,000 people at any one time in the festival area.

• Holding an eelpout fishing tournament.

• Designating areas on the lake for fish houses, parking.

• Two large tents would be on the ice, one being 6,600 square feet for main events, an ice bar and games. The other being 400 square feet for medical and emergency services.

• Planning for 10 vendor tents surrounding.

• Food and beverage catered by Chase on the Lake Hotel.

Potential merge with Winterfest

During the meeting, Event Director Jared Olson said that another part of the application is that the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce supports the event and is looking to merge it with the Bemidji Winterfest.

The Winterfest, which was held for the fourth time in a row this year, is an event that includes 5K and 10K runs, a fishing tournament, pond hockey, a polar plunge, a cornhole tournament and turkey bowling.

"I've had very good conversations with the Bemidji Chamber and Visit Bemidji, and they've agreed to help me if the event does move here," Olson said. "We do want to move the image to a clean, family friendly event. That's why we've changed the event to be more like the Winterfest."

According to Olson, organizers are also interested in the Bemidji area because of its infrastructure. More specifically, Olson mentioned the potential to use the Sanford Center parking lot in case of thinner ice.

A specific date hasn't been set yet for when the planning commission will discuss and vote on the permit application. Before that meeting is held, though, Rud said a public notice will run in the Pioneer. Additionally, Rud said citizens can give their comments and concerns to the Environmental Services Department, which has its office at the Beltrami County Administration building. The office is located at 701 Minnesota Ave. NW.