Another pass for Lollapalooza: Restoring Grant Park

September 18, 2011

Six weeks after the end of the seventh annual Lollapalooza in Grant Park, Chicago’s prestigious “front yard” still has not been restored to its condition before the giant music festival, but concert promoters are getting a pass on the penalties they’d be forced to pay for the delay in restoring most other venues.

The Chicago Park District estimates that it will take Austin, Texas-based promoters C3 Presents another month to finish repairs, the most extensive since the concert was reinvented as a destination festival based on Chicago’s lakefront. That means that large stretches of Grant Park will have been unusable or subpar for many Chicagoans from mid-summer, given closures for festival setup, through the frost.

This year, bad weather and a record crowd of 270,000 concertgoers left the sod throughout the park a rutted, muddy mess and destroyed hundreds of plants and shrubs. Yet despite a clause in the concert’s long-term contract stipulating that all repair work must be finished within five days of the end of the event, no fines or penalties have been levied against the promoters.

Standard practice in the concert industry sets a time limit on post-show cleanup and repairs at most venues and penalizes promoters for missing that deadline. Millennium Park charges promoters $5,000 for every four hours past the time set for the park to be returned to its pre-show state. Under those strict provisions, Lollapalooza already would owe the city an extra $1.1 million this year.

Grant Park post-Lollapalooza (CBS News Chicago)Elsewhere, smaller festivals such as the Pitchfork Music Festival and the North Coast Music Festival in Union Park are given 24 hours to return the public lands to their pre-concert condition or promoters must forfeit a hefty security deposit, on top of paying for the repairs and cleanup.

In addition to the controversial provision sparing Lollapalooza from paying the five-percent city amusement tax required of every other concert and sporting event within the city limits, the festival’s contract—which was negotiated in part by its lobbyist and attorney, Mark Vanecko, a nephew of former Mayor Richard Daley—does not require C3 to make a security deposit with the city for the use of its biggest park.

In a common “you break it, you buy/replace it” clause, the contract does stipulate that the promoters undertake and pay for:

Repair and replacement of any damaged turf, trees, bushes, shrubs and flower beds at the Festival Site if damaged during the Festival or during set-up or tear-down of the Festival… Within five (5) days after the Festival, cleaning up and restoring the Festival Area to its “pre-load-in” condition, as determined by the CPD in its reasonable judgment.

Asked last week if the Park District will fine C3 for the long delay in restoring Grant Park, spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner responded via email:

“As you may know, all repairs are paid for by the Lollapalooza Festival organizer. The estimated cost is $1 million. The repair was made difficult by the heavy rains that occurred during the concert weekend. Fortunately, the Chicago Park District has not lost any revenue as a result of the repairs, and the inconvenience to patrons has been minor.

“The Lollapalooza Festival is now among the top 5 tourist attractions in Chicago, netting both significant tourism dollars and dollars to Chicago parks citywide. While the inconvenience is regrettable, most Chicagoans see it as understandable.”

Indeed, many Chicagoans seem to have the attitude, “Hey, we’re lucky Lollapalooza is here!”—despite the facts that its contract keeps the festival in Grant Park through 2017; spares it the $1 million in amusement taxes that would be required of any other event that grosses $20 million or more a year, and the alleged tourism dollars it generates never have been confirmed by an independent economic impact study comparing those benefits to the money lost by other business on the local music scene because of Lollapalooza's monopolistic policies.

As noted earlier, an unusually vehement editorial in the Chicago Tribune last month considered those problems and concluded that “Lollapalooza has a sweet deal,” urging, “Next year, send a check.”

Green space advocates have been uncharacteristically compliant in letting Lollapalooza off the hook. Referring to new sod that has been laid down in Butler and Hutchinson fields since the concert, Adam Schwerner, director of the Department of Natural Resources for the Park District, told the Sun-Times last week that “what we have is a new lawn there… it’s never looked better.”

In the same article, Bob O’Neill, head of the Grant Park Conservancy, gushed, “Both fields look better than they did before Lollapalooza because of the new sod and the consistent green through the whole field.”

Local news anchor Bob Sirott went even further in a “One More Thing” commentary for Fox News Chicago:

“If you've been to Grant Park in the last few weeks, you know that much of it is still fenced off, as the damage done to the grounds during the muddy music fest continues to be repaired.

“Lately there have been angry letters to the editor in newspapers—some from people who went to Jazz Fest—complaining about the restoration from the August event taking so long. They shouldn’t be… Don’t knock the rock. It’s here to stay. And it’s a good thing for our city.”

Sirott noted that last year, the festival generated $2 million for parks improvements—seemingly a major incentive for keeping those usually boisterous watchdogs on the leash—without acknowledging reports by this blog and other news organizations that the figure should be more than $3 million, given the uncollected amusement taxes.

Criticism of Lollapalooza is not about "knocking the rock"—or at least it isn't from this rock critic. It's about the city once again selling short a one-of-a-kind asset, not unlike the parking meter deal, at a time of unprecedented budget crises, either because of ill-informed decisions or shady backroom dealings, while favoring a huge out-of-town corporate entity at the expense of local businesses.

As the head of the Hollywood-based William Morris Endeavor talent agency, the mayor’s brother, Ari Emanuel, co-owns Lollapalooza with C3. On August 17, the mayor repeated earlier pledges to ask “either the Park District or the City Council to set up a third party” to re-examine the Lollapalooza contract and its tax exemption. This followed a report by this blog on August 8 in which two aldermen with close ties to Chicago’s music scene, Joe Moreno and Scott Waguespack, demanded a City Council investigation.

To date, as far as this reporter has been able to determine, no city officials have made any moves to look at the contract anew.