Rotary Club’s event grows from bizarre idea to premier attraction
The Forest Lake Rotary Club’s Winter Plunge will reach two milestones on Saturday: five years, and $500,000 raised for local nonprofit causes.
Those lofty achievements were not foreseen in the summer of 2009 when Blake Roberts, then the club’s president, first brought the idea to the local Rotarians.
“It went over like a lead balloon,” recalled club member Rob Collins.
“You could hear crickets in the room,” Roberts said. “They were like, ‘What are you talking about?’”
But strange as it sounded, the idea of a jumping through a hole cut in a frozen-over lake piqued Collins’ curiosity.
Fast-forward to 2014 and Collins, Roberts and fellow Rotarian Jesse Johnson are set to oversee an event that, when this year’s receipts are counted, will have raised $625,000 over five years. About $550,000 of that will have gone back to the plungers’ organizations or to community causes through the Rotary Club.
“Short of the Fourth of July, I think it’s become one of the biggest events in town for the year,” Roberts said.
The Rotary Club had sponsored large fundraisers for years, from concerts at lakeshore backyards to go-kart races in business parking lots.
While successful, those events had run their course as Roberts’ term as Rotary Club president began. Also at that time, the Special Olympics was looking to move its Polar Plunge from the White Bear Lake VFW to a larger space.
Roberts felt Forest Lake could offer that event a solid venue, but he never heard back upon reaching out. Still, the idea of a similar event off Lakeside Memorial Park stuck in his mind, and his interest spiked upon researching a Canadian Rotary Club’s plunge.
He, Collins and Johnson tweaked that event’s format and again pitched it to the club’s membership in fall 2009. Encouraged by the realization that they could support the effort without necessarily plunging themselves, the members bought in, and a February 2010 date was set.
Organizers admittedly were winging it leading up to the inaugural Winter Plunge.
“The first year, I remember answering ‘I don’t know’ to so many questions,” Collins said.
On plunge day, ideal weather helped compensate for inadequate tents and heaters.
“We were lucky it was a 30-degree day,” Roberts said.
Service opportunity for club
The first-year numbers blew away the organizers, who were simply hoping not to lose money.
“Our break-even point was about $25,000 and we grossed $93,000,” Collins said. “So that’s when we knew that this was going to work.”
The number of participants and dollars raised grew in 2011 and 2012, and stayed strong last year.
Each team of participants secures pledges for plunging. Participants’ organizations split the revenues evenly with the Rotary Club for groups raising less than $1,000. Originally, organizations kept 70 percent of the money their team raises over $1,000. Last year, that policy was loosened so that teams raising over $1,000 get to keep 70 percent of their entire pledge amount. Sponsorship dollars, which have peaked for this year’s event, are crucial to allowing such a high pay-out to participants.
Organizers said that groups looking to raise funds are hard-pressed to find a better local opportunity than the Winter Plunge.
“We’ve heard so many times that it’s such an easy way to raise money, and it’s so well run,” Roberts said. “That’s what we hear time and time again.”
The club’s take is a primary source for its annual support of local groups and causes. About 15 percent of gross plunge revenue pays for event expenses, such as renting tents and hot tubs and making a donation to the Washington County Dive Team for its services.
“We’ve really tried to cut it really close with what we give back to the organizations,” Collins said of the club’s proceeds, stressing that the Winter Plunge is a service opportunity for the Rotary Club, first and foremost.
“Our philosophy would be that the Rotary Club at the end of this wouldn’t have to make a dime,” Roberts said. “I would be fine with that, because it’s all going back to the community. We wouldn’t be able to do other things, but at least those organizations are doing good things with the money.”
Collins, Roberts and Johnson have their own roles as chairs of the Rotary Club’s plunge committee. Collins is the main point of contact for the public and also oversees everything from registration to sponsorship to scheduling. Club Secretary Cindy Mattson also plays an integral role, organizers said.
Roberts and Johnson pitch in on those fronts but specialize in the on-ice duties. They have the assistance of many club members who come the weekend of the event.
Setup begins Friday when the hole is cut, tents and fencing are erected and bleachers hauled in. A policeman guards the site overnight, and the work continues Saturday morning. Take-down after the plunge goes quicker; in some years the ice has been clear by 4 p.m.
In all, it adds up to a large amount of work for a few hours of play. Collins likens it to a wedding.
“All year long you plan, you want to get everything in place, everything has to work,” he said. “Then the day comes and in two hours it’s over.”
Collins’ wife, Tammy, played out the wedding simile in 2011 in one of the early highlights in plunge history. She jumped while wearing her wedding dress, hand-in-hand with her tuxedo-clad husband.
Similar memories abound, such as infamous plunges that led to rule changes about body paint and mid-air flips. The 2012 event was memorable due to mild conditions that left the ice below several inches of standing water. One year, the truck carrying the tents became stuck on the ice. Last year, a set of bleachers tumbled off a trailer going through the downtown roundabout, and the Rotarian driver had no idea that he lost his cargo.
Such moments, organizers said, make it rewarding to see the Winter Plunge grow and evolve into an anchor for the Flake Festival, a winter celebration that the Forest Lake Area Chamber of Commerce started in 2011.
“For me, originally, just wanting to bring something to Forest Lake is why I reached out to Special Olympics,” Roberts said. “Now, I couldn’t imagine it having been any better.”
This year’s event
The Forest Lake Rotary Club’s 2014 Winter Plunge begins at noon Saturday on the ice off of Lakeside Memorial Park. Plunging is scheduled to run until 2 p.m.
Prizes will be awarded in several categories.
The event will feature the Legion and VFW combined color guard, play-by-play from hole-side announcers, and a local Captain Jack Sparrow impersonator.
It is not too late to register. Those interested may do so at winterplunge.kintera.org, or in person at Vannelli’s by the Lake, next to the park, from 6-8 p.m. Friday and from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday.
For more information, contact Collins at 651-815-9281, Roberts at 651-755-6400 or Johnson at 651-464-7227.