Beaufort's beloved local seafood will be celebrated as usual this fall, that much is certain.
But much related to one of the city's most popular festivals remains in question amid a dispute over ownership and operation that includes the threat of legal action and the possibility the city might see dueling shrimp celebrations in October.
The city of Beaufort and Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce are at odds over trademarks for the Taste of Beaufort held in May and the Beaufort Shrimp Festival in October.
For months they haven't agreed on terms of an agreement to partner on the shrimp festival. The issue came to a head Tuesday when the city council denied a routine request from the chamber related to hosting the Shrimp Festival in Waterfront Park.
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The city plans to take over and run the festival in October, led by two staff members. City leaders "don't believe the (chamber) has acted like the kind of partner that we want to have," Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said Tuesday.
"The message from them and attorneys is we're just not reaching any kind of agreement," he said.
The two-day shrimp festival includes local restaurants and chefs, competitions for the top shrimp dish, a road race and activities for children.
Chamber of Commerce leaders said Tuesday they feel ownership of the event is theirs and could explore other locations to produce a shrimp festival.
"We believe the festival needs to be produced; we believe it's ours to produce and we will produce it," board chairman Cliff Mrkvicka said. "It's sad we can not hold it where it's traditionally been held, in Waterfront Park, but there's an opportunity there for it to grow and make it bigger and better. So we'll look to explore that opportunity."
The city trademarked the Taste of Beaufort and Beaufort Shrimp Festival names last year. The two events have traditionally been hosted by the Chamber of Commerce and in recent years were operated by Main Street Beaufort, which was absorbed by the chamber in 2016.
Amid Main Street budget concerns last year, the chamber said it would continue to operate the two largest events — Taste of Beaufort and the shrimp festival — which are among the biggest money generators of Beaufort festivals but also come with large up-front costs.
City Manager Bill Prokop said the city registered the names to protect them from a private company grabbing them first and that the action wouldn't preclude a nonprofit organization operating the festival from using the name.
"Neither one of us want to spend time and money on a lawsuit — at least we shouldn't," Prokop said.
Chamber leaders didn't realize until January the city had filed for the trademarks, Mrkvicka said.
The discovery led to meetings with Prokop and downtown operations director Linda Roper during which chamber leaders said the events belonged to them and asked for the trademarks, Mrkvicka said. A chamber attorney eventually sent the city a letter in May saying the city filing for the trademarks constituted fraud and the chamber would pursue legal action if they aren't relinquished, Mrkvicka said.
During the conversations earlier this year, the city gave the chamber a list of requests it wanted in order to work with the business advocacy organization. The plan included the chamber again establishing Main Street as a separate organization and also splitting off its tourism marketing division into a separate organization, a move that happened earlier this year with the creation of a convention and visitors bureau.
The proposal also called for the chamber to operate the two major events for the next three years in exchange for reporting profit and attendance numbers and giving 10 percent of its net profits to a city program for improvements to Waterfront Park or other areas of downtown.
Mrkvicka characterized the document as a demand letter in addressing council members Tuesday.
Chamber officials took issue with the city's request for a percentage of the festival's profits and questioned whether other city festivals will face such a cost. Prokop said the city is looking at asking other festivals to do the same as a way to maintain Waterfront Park.
Shrimp Festival and Taste of Beaufort are among four Beaufort festivals — Water Festival and Gullah Festival are the others — that enjoy a reduced grandfathered rate to use Waterfront Park.
City Council members said chamber leaders didn't make enough of an effort to come to an agreement before the city heard from a chamber attorney related to the trademark.
"While I understand your comments and I appreciate your comments, I respectfully disagree with them in that we have made an honest effort to try and to hold a festival that is good for the community and is successful for everyone downtown," Mrkvicka told council members Mike McFee, Stephen Murray and Keyserling. "And it would be a shame for that not to take place."