By Justin Jarrett
A rift between the City of Beaufort and the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce came to the forefront last week with the City’s announcement that it will manage the annual Beaufort Shrimp Festival this fall.
The City and the Chamber each sent out releases laying out their side of the story, which began more than a year ago with a series of meetings seeking to improve the working relationship between the entities.
City Council voted unanimously to take over production of the Shrimp Festival, which has been sponsored by the Chamber since 1995, citing a desire to protect one of four “Heritage festivals” the City co-sponsors (along with the Water Festival, Gullah Festival, and Taste of Beaufort).
“We are tremendously disappointed that City of Beaufort officials are unwilling to work with the Chamber to continue hosting this nearly 25-year-old festival,” the Chamber said in a release. “The Shrimp Festival tradition has been in the Chamber family since 1995 and we are proud to have built this free, family-friendly festival into the signature event that it has become.”
The Chamber says City officials “covertly applied for the festival trademark form the state, and made lofty demands in order for us to continue producing” the event, including requesting a licensing fee of 10 percent of the net profit from the event to be contributed to the Beaufort Pride of Place Program.
The City counters that it trademarked the festival name to protect it from being registered by a private company, and to ensure the event remains in Beaufort. City officials said previous Chamber leadership attempted to move the Shrimp Festival out of downtown Beaufort and once offered it for sale to an individual.
“It was being used as a possible revenue source and not as an important community event,” City Manager Bill Prokop said. “This is a very important community event and the City is doing this to protect it.”
City officials say they were equally surprised in May to be served with notice of a pending lawsuit the Chamber filed against the City. They say they had no intention of preventing the Chamber from continuing to use the name.
Part of the problem, Mayor Billy Keyserling said, is that Main Street Beaufort had run the festival in recent years, but the Chamber allowed the official membership in the Main Street program to lapse, creating uncertainty around who would run the festival and prompting the City to make a decision.
Keyserling said the move could prove to be a temporary one if the City and the Chamber can put aside their differences – and their attorneys – and get back to a strong working relationship.
“We’re a small town and we eventually work together,” Keyserling said. “We have our bumps, but they play an important role.”