Stuck in their craw

Home to the world’s smallest recall election, the town of Isleton goes to war over its annual crawfish festival

When its crawdad fest became too big for the little town of Isleton, all hell began to break loose.

When its crawdad fest became too big for the little town of Isleton, all hell began to break loose.

Photo By B.J. Quintana and R.V. Scheide

Isleton, a little city on the Sacramento River (population 850), is known for two things: (1) the annual Crawdad Festival, which attracts thousands of seafood fans every Father’s Day weekend, and (2) feuding.

Though infighting always had been happening in Isleton, the city made headlines all over California last June when it recalled its mayor at the time, Pam Pratt. As the days to the recall vote counted down, the city split into two warring factions—Pratt’s recall was determined by 12 votes—that still exist today. Proponents of Pratt can be seen at many Isleton City Council meetings criticizing the post-Pratt city council.

So, it didn’t take long for a new war to get started. This time it’s between the city of Isleton and the Isleton Chamber of Commerce. What’s it over? Why, crawdads, of course.

The Isleton Chamber of Commerce has organized and promoted the Crawdad Festival since it first began 19 years ago. This year, after a power play by the Isleton City Council, Crawdad, and its thousands in profits, are now the responsibility of the city government. But, in the city’s eagerness to grab the festival, it overlooked some areas of concern. For one, there is still a trademark issue that the chamber plans on taking to court. Secondly, the city is moving forward on the event without a festival permit; last Friday, contrary to the city’s claims, Caltrans reported that the city had not yet received their permit and that their application still was being processed.

Still, if all goes according to the city’s plans, the 2005 Crawdad Festival is expected to be both safer and more lucrative, as the city plans to enforce stricter conduct rules while erecting a fence in order to impose a cover charge. Even so, it’s doubtful the city fully anticipated the consequences of ripping the festival from the chamber’s “Hands.”

Charli and Ralph Hand, longtime owners of the Hotel Del Rio in Isleton, created the festival in 1986 as a Chamber of Commerce fund-raiser. (Ralph is the chamber’s president and Charli is on the board of directors.) The basis for the idea of the festival came from the gigantic Crawdad Festival in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, where the Hands and other chamber members learned how to prepare crawdads in vast amounts.

Over the years, the festival gained enough momentum to become a truly massive event; a 2001 article in SN&R reported that the attendance during the entire three-day festival that same year was 200,000 (“Invasion of the Crawdads” by R.V. Scheide; SN&R Cover; June 28, 2001). With the thousands upon thousands of people that attended the event came thousands of dollars for local businesses. The festival became the face of the little city, with restaurants painting huge crawdads on the sides of their buildings and the chamber nicknaming the town, “Crawdad Town USA.”

But, along with the people and the money came drunkards, nudity, extreme violence, and traffic jams. The festival morphed into a miniature Mardi Gras. Already a popular stop with bikers and boaters (who party just as hard as bikers), the combination of minimal police, the absence of a designated-drinking area, and Budweiser’s sponsorship made for a volatile mix, especially after the sun went down (as a former editor of the nearby River News Herald once said, “You don’t want to be a girl at Crawdad after dark”). And being that it was a big party, people from all over drove to Isleton to “get down,” which resulted in state routes 160 and 12, the two-lane highways that lead to Isleton, consistently getting clogged up.

Traffic problems and two major accidents (one a fatality) the previous year is why, in 2004, Caltrans did not award the Chamber of Commerce a festival permit until two days before the festival. And when the festival was all said and done (only 25,000 attended), the chamber was then hit with $60,000 more in charges, including a $43,000 bill from the California Highway Patrol and the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. (In the end, the chamber only paid $20,000 to the CHP and sheriff.)

The action heats up during the 2003 fest.

Photo By Ryan Flatley

Worried that Caltrans wouldn’t award a permit for the 2005 festival, the chamber began working with Caltrans in January of this year to find solutions to the traffic, not realizing that they were setting themselves up to lose the event altogether.

After a meeting with representatives of Caltrans and local law enforcement agencies, the chamber had come up with a solution to everyone’s problems: Move the festival from downtown Isleton to a nearby field. According to Charli Hand, the owner of the nearby field was willing to donate 50 acres to the chamber for a permanent festival site. The spot appeared ideal for the festival, sitting as it does right next to Jackson Slough Road, the back entrance into Isleton, and right in the middle of future housing developments. “What a great thing this was going to be,” said Hand.

But it wouldn’t have been great for everyone, especially the downtown business owners who felt that the move would zap their Crawdad Festival profits. Upon hearing the chamber’s news, business owners went to the Isleton City Council and demanded that they do something. The council responded at a meeting on February 11, where Vice Mayor Raul “Rudy” Salaices suggested that the city promote another, more family-oriented event in the city’s downtown on the same weekend as the Crawdad Festival. “Isleton Family Fun Fest” was a name that was kicked around for the event.

Later, at a city council meeting in March, the council approved $75,000 for payment to the new event’s organizer, Kristene Smith Public Relations. The event even had a new name: “The city of Isleton presents the 2005 Crawdad Festival.”

According to Salaices, the organizer found that the Isleton Chamber of Commerce had not copyrighted the Crawdad Festival’s name, so the city went ahead and took it. (Charli Hand denied this claim and said that the chamber is considering legal action for trademark infringement.) Though the city’s event still will be different from previous Crawdad Festivals, “we’re using the same name because it has familiarity to it with the people in the area.”

The Hands were already mad when the city announced it was creating another event on the same weekend as Crawdad, but they were incredulous after discovering that their name was stolen. “I definitely felt betrayed. It was a real slap in the face,” said Hand. But instead of hunkering down for a fight, the chamber’s 49 members voted to cancel its festival.

Still, the Hands weren’t going to take this sitting down. In April, the chamber sent letters to all of the vendors that received applications for booths from the chamber, announcing that the festival was canceled and not mentioning that the city was promoting its own. The city fired back with a press conference and a statement saying it was considering legal action against the chamber.

The strategy appears to have worked. In a phone interview last Thursday, Charli Hand told SN&R, “We’re not going to try to do anything to hurt the businesses in town.” But the chamber itself has been left in a crisis: This year’s Crawdad Festival was supposed to make up for the debt incurred from last year’s law-enforcement bill. Yet, not only is the chamber not being allowed to organize the festival, but the Hands also have been denied a booth for selling crawdads. From the crawdad booth, 50 percent of the profits went to the chamber and supplied most of its budget for the year. “What they’ve basically done is shut down the chamber.” Last Thursday night, the chamber had a closed-door meeting to discuss the creation of new events to make up for lost profits.

Other potential losers in the battle for the Crawdad Festival are the children of Isleton. The chamber created the Isleton Children’s Fund to supply scholarships for local residents and to pay for a citywide Christmas party, where all the children in the city receive presents. According to Hand, as of last Thursday, the fund stood at about $1,000, and the chamber was sitting on a stack of scholarship applications. (Both Salaices and Isleton Mayor Michael Gomez insisted that the children’s fund isn’t in jeopardy and that the city would be contributing some of this year’s Crawdad profits to local children’s organizations, as well as other local charities.)

As for the city, they appear to be making out like bandits. A press release from Kristene Smith Public Relations last week announced new rules and fees for the festival, which include a $5 cover charge on top of the $5 parking permit. If the turnout is the same as last year’s 25,000, the city is guaranteed $125,000 from the cover charge alone, and all profits are going into the city’s general fund (which was budgeted at about $917,000 for the fiscal year). Admittedly, the city does need the money: In January, the River News Herald reported that the city did not even have $7,000 to buy its fire department new protective suits. “The city hasn’t grown in 35 years, but costs have gone up,” said Salaices. “We’re feeling the pains right now.”

Still, the city’s acquisition of the event not only has been damaging to its relation with the chamber, but also its citizens. At a city council meeting on May 11, local residents complained to the council that they couldn’t open their own booths on their own property, for $40, like they could when the chamber was in charge. The city now was making them pay full price ($750). Many set up their own booths to keep themselves occupied while guarding their property, but a few donated their profits to local charities.

“I’m embarrassed for [the city],” said Hand, later adding, “I see a lot of things that are going to create a lot of hard feelings.”