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Changes in store for North Country’s biggest event

CANTON — The largest summer event to come to St. Lawrence County and the North Country at large is going to see a huge change due to the COVID-19 pandemic with one county legislator predicting it to be “a flop.”

The crowd of upwards of 30,000 that have been known to travel from all around the world to view or participate in the Bassmaster Elite Series will not be flocking to the Whitaker Park in Waddington, but through “creative brainstorming, County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Brooke E. Rouse told legislators Monday night that “viewing parties” may be the way to go this year.

Rouse said she has been in discussions with representatives of the B.A.S.S. Elite Series, as well as Janet Otto-Cassada, the director and president of the organization SLC North Country Events Inc., a nonprofit created just for the purposes organizing the Bassmaster tournament, and William E. Dashnaw, another director and the treasurer of the organization on how to navigate the event around the pandemic.

“What we are looking at now, this isn’t set in stone, but potentially, what we are looking at doing is having the first two days, Thursday and Friday, coordinate with local restaurants to have watch parties, at their sites, under their own parameters,” Rouse said during her update at the county’s Finance Committee meeting. “Then on Saturday and Sunday, look at doing for the weigh in, a limited amount of time at the park and just have it be a drive-in opportunity, so that we can control the crowds, we can control the movement of people.

“So it’s a different type of model where, instead of having thousands and thousands of people in one location, if we can, over that period of time, spread them out into different locations across the county, there may be a good impact,” she said. “We’re not pushing for people from out of the area to come in.”

Rouse said there is consideration of holding an expo in the Donald M. Martin Civic Center in Waddington that would also be controlled as far as the amount of people allowed to enter at a time and how they would traverse the space.

She said the shift in the event has also led to a reflective budget adjustment, creating a reduced cost for the event. Bassmaster still has its host fee and expenses and there would be some marketing, but only for local or drive market. She said she didn’t believe it would worth putting money into major marketing this year.

Entertainment would include fireworks and a concert to go with the weigh-in, she said.

She said revenue would be tricky this year, with no anticipated private sponsors, nearly no vendors in the park and parking fees diminished to only those that would park to see the weigh ins.

After speaking with Dashnaw, Rouse said SLC North Country Events Inc. would be seeking $50,000, which would cover the host fee, and that the organization has applied for $20,000 from the St. Lawrence River Valley Redevelopment Agency. She said the balance from last year is approximately $26,800.

Last year, the county approved $30,000 in funding, half of the $60,000 host fee.

At the end of the 2018 nationally televised fishing event Otto-Cassada signed a contract that would bring the elite series championship back to Whitaker Park for three more years.

Through the contract, the host fees for the B.A.S.S. Elite Series would decline from $60,000, to $50,000 to $40,000 from 2019-2221, respectively, and then in 2022 they would pay $10,000 for the B.A.S.S. National Tournament.

Legislative Vice Chairman David W. Forsythe, R-Lisbon, said that Ogdensburg has opted out of participating in a similar event after deciding that “it’s was not a good year to host the tournament,” and asked if there had been discussions over whether Waddington could also opt out.

“By the numbers you just presented, it looks like it is going to be a flop, I guess would be the easiest way to say it,” he said.

Rouse said Waddington and B.A.S.S. Elite would like to have the tournament and keep that the contract, citing the media exposure as a value to the county.

“It’s leveraged by our huge crowds, we always get those headlines, but that aside, the amount they put in – they stream live on ESPN or they stream on ESPN, they stream live on BASS Master website and they plan to emphasize that even more this year,” she said. “And so that, plus trying to think creatively of ways that we could still generate some activity and interest at the event in a safe way is where we came up with that kind of option of having the watch parties at restaurants because that will physically get money back out to those restaurants across the county.”

Legislator James E. Reagen, R-Ogdensburg, emphasized the importance of marketing the event, despite the pandemic and lack of crowd. He said when the legislature agreed to help support the event, it did so, successfully, with the intent of raising attention to the event across North America.

“We are now ranked the number one bass fishery in North America and the only way you keep that is by continually promoting it,” he said. “We have a tendency to take for granted that, oh, everybody must know about Northern New York and the St. Lawrence River, but they don’t and people are just not aware that there is such a thing as the St. Lawrence River and that it is clean, it is beautiful, it is blue, it is one of the most beautiful places in the world and it also has one of the greatest fisheries in the world.”

He said tourism is not a “one-shot thing,” and that it needs to be continued.

“It is something that has to be continually reinforced and continually told about because there are other places who are trying to take your place,” he said. “I think if we have an opportunity to put that message out, even if we don’t have the crowd of 30,000 people down in Waddington . . . to make this modest investment to continue what’s been started and the long term benefit to the people of the entire county will be more than ten fold.”

The 2020 SiteOne Bassmaster Elite tournament on the St. Lawrence is slated to take place July 23-26. The following week, from July 30-Aug. 2, the fishing moves a little bit east for the Bassmaster Elite tournament on Lake Champlain.

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