Will there be concerts on Northerly Island this summer?

February 4, 2011

It’s hard to see how, unless the city is once again about to hand the rights to book a temporary venue on this prime piece of real estate to the dreaded Death Star of the concert business, Ticketmaster/Live Nation, by side-stepping the bidding process…for a second time.

Here’s the back story: In early 2005, about two years after Mayor Daley tore up the runways at Meigs Field in the middle of the night, the Chicago Park District awarded a contract for “an open-air boutique amphitheater” on Northerly Island to Clear Channel Entertainment, now Live Nation and merged with Ticketmaster.

This was a considerable affront to the other leading bidder in the proposal process, local concert promoters Jam Productions, which had conceived of the plan in the first place and initially pitched it to the city. But Jam lost out when the Park District put the proposal out to bid and its five-member panel awarded a three-year contract with the option for two additional years to Jam’s giant, exceedingly customer-unfriendly arch rival.

The Ticketmaster/Live Nation Death Star began booking the sort of absurdly over-priced, artistically embarrassing shows that are its specialty on Northerly Island in the summer of 2005. Because the city’s long-term plans for the site had not yet taken shape, the venue was erected each spring and torn down again each fall, resulting in an even less comfortable and more shoddy facility than Ticketmaster/Live Nation’s other, bigger outdoor venue, the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Tinley Park—though the views of Lake Michigan certainly were superior to those of the prairie around I-80.

Of course, Ticketmaster/Live Nation also promptly sold the naming rights to its new joint, hence its ungainly and impersonal name: the Charter One Pavilion.

As noted earlier, the contract was for three years with two one-year extensions—which meant it expired at the end of the 2009 concert season. Yet Ticketmaster/Live Nation still was promoting a full roster of crappy shows at the venue last summer. (Lowlights of the 2010 schedule: the Offspring, Chicago with the Doobie Brothers, REO Speedwagon with Pat Benatar, the Goo Goo Dolls, Paramore, and the Stone Temple Pilots.)

How did Ticketmaster/Live Nation get a sixth year on a five-year contract? It seems the city was too distracted to issue a new request for proposals and bother with that whole required-by-law bidding thing for Northerly Island at the time.

"It would not have been useful for the Chicago Park District to issue the RFP with the future of the Olympics being uncertain,” Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner told me a few weeks ago. She did not elaborate, despite numerous attempts by this reporter to determine how that was legal… a question that also has been posed by Jam and other Ticketmaster/Live Nation rivals and critics.

Northerly Island played a prime role in Chicago’s Olympics bid, but when that went south, the city returned to mulling over its long-term, environmentally-friendly plans for the site. Unveiled in December—as covered in relatively breathless prose by the Tribune and the Sun-Times—these call for what Trib architecture critic Blair Kamin called “a new concert pavilion that resembles a giant land mound, serene wetlands for migrating birds and bird-watchers, and a picturesque chain of reefs that would protect a deep-water lagoon where people could swim, canoe and kayak.” Oh, and “at the lagoon's bottom would be a sunken ship that divers could explore.”

Such an ambitious vision takes time, not only to build, but to contract. The Park District issued its request for qualified bidders, step one before the second phase of a request for proposals, late last year. Four entities responded by the Dec. 20th deadline: AECOM Services of Illinois with Tishman Construction Corporation of Illinois and SMG; Ardmore Associates, LLC with Magellan Project Services, LLC; Live Nation Chicago, Inc., and US Equities Realty with Jam Productions, Ltd.

The first evaluation committee hearing was held on Jan. 26; the next is scheduled for Feb. 15. But again, this only is the first phase of the process: weighing whether the applicants are qualified. The specifics of their proposals aren’t even on the table yet.

Hard as it is to imagine, given the weather at the moment, the start of the summer concert season only is about 12 weeks away. It seems almost impossible to expect that, within that time, the Park District will award the final Northerly Island contract and the winner will finish—or even begin—construction of the lame-duck Daley administration’s grand vision for a green concert venue and environmental playground on the lake. Which brings us back to the question raised up top.

Will there be concerts on Northerly Island this summer?

“No one has been selected at this time,” Falkner said on Tuesday. “I don’t know how that will work out.”

Meanwhile, the evil scheming proceeds as usual over at Ticketmaster/Live Nation.

“Live Nation is holding a calendar for Northerly Island, but not entering any firm dates until the Park District completes their RFQ/P processes,” Mark Campana, the company’s co-president for North American concerts, told me on Jan. 28. “At that time, if Live Nation is selected as the operator, we will begin to confirm shows.”

Ticketmaster/Live Nation clearly is optimistic that it will be bringing what it considers music to Northerly Island again this summer, and why shouldn’t it be? Not only was it a favorite of the Daley administration, but it’s in even better with two of the three frontrunners in the upcoming mayoral election.

Third-place candidate Gery Chico worked as Live Nation’s attorney in Chicago at the same time he was serving as president of the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners. (He has said he recused himself from any votes pertaining to the Death Star.) And frontrunner Rahm Emanuel is beyond cozy with the reviled concert megalith.

More—much more—on the Rahm and Ticketmaster/Live Nation connections on Monday.