By Joshua Maloni
The Niagara River Region Chamber of Commerce is looking to pull the Lewiston Smelt Festival from the brink of cancellation.
On Friday, Silo Restaurant proprietor Alan Hastings opted out of hosting the May 1 event in front of his Water Street restaurant. He expressed frustration over the chamber's inability to find a sponsor for the event tent where the fish are cooked and distributed.
Plus, "The weather isn't looking that good," Hastings said. "We haven't had any weather above 50 degrees and it's being predicted that it's not going to be that great.
"It comes very early - it's the first Friday (of May) and, you know, the last couple years I've been trying to get the date changed. But I haven't had any cooperation.
"I think it should be pushed back a couple weeks at least. That would really help me, because I'd have to have things in full swing for the restaurant just to make this event happen. It's forcing me to open several weeks before May 1."
Hastings has provided smelt, fryer oil, cocktail sauce, paper products and manpower in past years.
Chamber President Jennifer Pauly said, "Nothing is finalized, but we've been putting plans in motion for something else to happen.
"Our main concern is that this festival has been established. People know that it's the first Friday in May. And it's been successful."
The Smelt Festival is a fundraiser for the Niagara River Anglers Association.
"It's all to give awareness to the smelt and what the Niagara Anglers do, and we would hate to have this festival not happen and hurt the programs that the anglers put on," Pauly said. "They do depend on the donations that come in from that event for some of their programming.
"Our concern now is, if this is the course of action that's happening, we are going to see if we can find another plan of action to make it still go forth and be beneficial to the anglers - and to the Lewiston village and to the community.
"Regardless, people are going to come in that Friday looking for a festival."
Anglers President Paul Jackson said, "It's a financial thing for Alan. Last year with (the bad) weather and all, he got hit pretty hard, you know."
Jackson pledged, "We're still going to do it. We've been doing it before Alan was involved, and we're going to continue to do it."
One possible Smelt Festival location is behind Water Street Landing -- just down the street from The Silo.
Pauly has said the chamber doesn't have money to put into the Smelt Festival, but would coordinate marketing.
"That's a festival that doesn't benefit the chamber in any way. We don't make any money off of it," she said. "It's a festival that benefits the community as a whole, and the Niagara River Anglers, which is an important organization to this whole community to foster the fishing industry - which is a year-round industry here - and to foster programs for the youth to be involved in. And they're a nonprofit volunteer organization.
"That's the focus here."
Jackson said the anglers would proceed as usual.
"What we do isn't going to change," he said. "We might need a little more sponsorship to pay for some more smelt, but we're working on that."
"Last year we were lucky to cook 300 pounds," Jackson said. "Other years we've cooked over 400 pounds. Somebody had to pay for them.
"Right now, I have a donation from CWM that pays for approximately 300, depending on what the price of them are.
"We're planning on whatever we can do. (The longer) we're there, the more donations we get."
"It's a fun event," Pauly said. "It's a laidback, fun event, and people look forward to it from all over the place. I mean, we've had people from Orchard Park; from Williamsville; from Clarence. And that's a conscious decision to make a drive out to Lewiston to come to that festival. That's not just a drive-thru, 'Well, let's stop here.' There are people that come from all over - even Canada - that come over for it.
"It's really a festival that's taken on its own identity."
"People come and have a great time," she added. "They like the experience. Weather permitting, too, it can either be a great evening out on the waterfront or it could be a little cold and rainy like it was last year. But people still come out for it."
Hastings said he didn't object to the chamber finding a new location.
"No, that's fine," he said. "They're going to find out how much I actually do. That's what they're going to find out."
With regard to buying the smelt condiments and cooking essentials, Hastings said, "I think they're going to have a big surprise."
"I'm confident that they'll understand a little more and come back and work with me next year," Hastings said.
The Silo will donate 20 percent of smelt basket sales this summer season to the anglers. The restaurant will have an onsite receptacle for customers to make additional donations.
Niagara Frontier Publications' outdoor columnist Mark Daul was one of the original anglers frying smelt. In a 2013 column, he wrote, "Looking for activities for our members, in the spring of 1983 ... when the smelt started coming up the river on their annual spawning journey, a handful of members gathered at the old 'sand docks' to dip for them and, off the tailgate of a member's pickup, make an impromptu fish fry on a Coleman stove with a small frying pan and enough oil to cook them. The smelt were running good that night, and we had all we could eat, plus sharing them with passers-by and other dippers."
"This continued to be an annual outing for the NRAA membership, and it just kept growing," Daul continued. "About 2001 or 2002, then-Village of Lewiston Mayor Richard Soluri saw a good thing happening and hit upon an idea for his village to make this event grow even more so more people could enjoy this rite of spring. Soluri lined up the president of the Anglers Association, Doug Stein, seeking out his thoughts along with others on the board of directors. ... The Lewiston Business and Professional Association (now the Niagara River Region Chamber of Commerce) took over and the event exploded the very first year, and has continued exploding every year since."
Pictured above is the 2013 Lewiston Smelt Festival. Shown below is a 2014 photo collage.