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Rotary to take on Venetian Fest

The Saugatuck-Douglas Rotary Club is new organizer of Saugatuck’s perennial Venetian Festival, at least for 2023.

The chapter board voted unanimously Jan. 13 to assume “provisional” leadership of the event. Previous organizer Cow Hill Yacht Club relinquished control in a letter to Saugatuck City Council, citing increased costs and complexity.

Cow Hill leadership voiced hope Venetian could transition to “another charitable organization with the resources to organize and manage it in the future.”

“While it is our intention to organize the event indefinitely,” the Rotary

board told members in an internal communication, “we also wish to evaluate the return on investment from the festival and work with you (members) plus partners around town to optimize the event for the future, if possible.”

The Venetian has been a July-capping mainstay in Saugatuck for decades. Its most recent iteration involved a Friday night band concert in Coghlin Park with refreshments, then took to the water Saturday with:

• A traveling Dinghy Poker match, with prizes for best poker hands collected at stops around Lake Kalamazoo, culminating in

• An illuminated large-boat parade as dusk falls. The 501c3 local Rotary chapter manages other events, including the annual Mt. Baldhead Challenge. The “Ultimate Multi-Terrain Race” each September welcomes 500 trail runners to tackle dune paths, climb Mt. Baldhead’s 302 stairs plus more rigors.

Fundraising goes to:

• Enhance youth education and leadership opportunities;

• Preserve fragile local ecosystems, and

• Promote a healthy economy for all.

“The board,” said chapter president Mark Smaller, “stepped up to continue Venetian Fest because it represents what we felt was an obligation to the community and opportunity for Rotary.

“We have decided,” he went on, “to dedicate annual net proceeds to our environmental imperative,  with a special focus on the health of our waterways — the river, harbor and lake.”

This emphasis is a natural linkage with a summer festival celebrating our communal life along those waterways and key to a healthy local economy as well, Smaller said.

Club members Garnet Lewis and Cathy North have been named co-chairs of the committee to organize the Venetian Festival for July 28-29 this year. Lewis serves on Saugatuck, North on Douglas city councils.

They will assemble a team to schedule vendors and suppliers, work with municipal agencies, encourage sponsors plus coordinate volunteers.

“A big shout out,” said Smaller, “and congratulations to the folks at Cow Hill Yacht Club. Their organization of the event has been stellar. Their documentation of the steps needed to organize the event has given us a playbook for success.”

Crowd-pleasing 1980s cover band Star Farm has been booked to perform again Friday night.

Interested in volunteering or sponsoring the event? Email

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