If tourism and commercial seafood got married, it would be the Marathon Seafood Festival. If they had babies, it would be all the organizations that benefit from the union. Their grandchildren are all the living human beings in the Middle Keys who also benefit.
Because a dollar spent at the festival isn’t just a dollar. It’s so much more.
Consider this — the Marathon Seafood Festival requires about 300 to 350 volunteers to operate. That’s roughly 4% of the town’s population. Add about another 2 to 4% of the population for locals operating vendor booths — whether it be to sell some unique spice blends, or sell raffle tickets for a “cooler of cheer” to benefit the Marathon Rotary Club. There’s another segment of the local population that comes just for a good time. Oh, no, wait … that’s everybody.
“It’s not uncommon for locals to show up for their ‘shift,’ and then stay to eat dinner or enjoy the music,” said Paul Lebo, a member of the Organized Fishermen of Florida (OFF). The festival is the joint effort of the Marathon Chamber of Commerce and OFF.
As part of the festival’s funding, the organizers are required to survey guests. In 2019, 400 guests were surveyed and the results are eye-opening.
Almost 60% of festival goers are from outside the island chain and 75% report coming to the Keys just to enjoy the Marathon Seafood Festival. According to the survey results, extrapolated with a 5% margin of error, almost 3,000 attendees stayed in the Middle Keys overnight. The average group size is about 3.5 people (this is a family event, largely).
“We calculated that visitor spending directly tied to the Marathon Seafood Festival amounts to about $200 per day — including accommodations — for a total of about $7.5 million,” said Marathon Chamber of Commerce Director Dan Samess.
Samess said it takes the entire town’s cooperation to put on the festival and that includes enlisting organizations to put some muscle into it. The money spent at the festival trickles down to so many worthy causes.
The tip jar
The beer tent is staffed by dozens of volunteers — refilling souvenir beer mugs at a dead run to handle the demand. They are under the capable direction of Art Stephens, a commercial fisherman who wears a lot of other hats, too. All of the tip money is directed to various youth sports — equipment, travel and special workshops.
“This is such a giving crowd,” said Stephens. “I regularly have one local that drops a $100 check in the tip jar at the Marathon Seafood Festival. He doesn’t drink, but wants to support our community.”
The smoothie booth started 12 years ago and is operated by Freida and Lynn Landry. It’s staffed by high school students, or former Marathon High School students, who return year after year to help. The money is directed toward the school’s drama club to help stage productions.
“I think that we kept asking OFF for money. Eventually they just told us to open a booth and raise our own funds,” said Lynn Landry, laughing.
All over the festival, guests will find OFF and Marathon Seafood Festival tip jars — at the main lobster booth, near the french fries, etc. Every year they choose a different beneficiary. This year, the tips will go to classroom supplies for teachers at Marathon High School and Stanley Switlik Elementary School.
The folks cleaning the tables at the seafood festival are members, or friends of members, of the Marathon Elks Lodge. For their troubles, the club receives a $1,000 stipend plus tips from generous souls. They turn around and fund scholarships.
“We give out scholarships to high school seniors,” said Wendy Bonilla. On average, she said, it’s about five students a year.
From the festival proceeds, OFF gives about $5,000 a year to the children of commercial fishermen who are graduating high school, too. Some pursue business degrees in order to take over the family business. Others pursue education in related fields, like marine mechanics. It also uses proceeds for lobbying efforts that protect the fishery AND their livelihoods.
The chamber uses festival proceeds to award $5,000 merit scholarships to seniors, another $5,000 to fund a Take Stock in Children scholarship and $10,000 a year for chamber members’ continuing education.
The examples above, though, are just the tip of the iceberg. See those Boy Scouts parking cars? They put the money to good use, too. The Florida Keys SPCA cornhole game? Donations from that go to help care for cats and dogs and bunnies looking for forever homes. The list goes on and on. A dollar isn’t just a dollar.