Grant Park cleanup: Taking Lollapalooza at its word

August 16, 2012

UPDATED WITH NEW MATERIAL BELOW, 1 p.m. THURSDAY (and a slight clarification added, 2:45 p.m.)

With their usual lack of healthy reportorial skepticism about Walmart on the Lake, both Chicago dailies, assorted TV stations and other local media earlier this week regurgitated a press release from Lollapalooza promoters C3 Presents assuring residents that this year’s post-concert cleanup of Grant Park will not linger into the fall as last year’s did, and that it will cost a mere $150,000 versus the alleged $1 million tab for 2011.

Can we imagine journalists taking anything a politician says at face value, much less—heavens forbid!—Drew Peterson? Sources say the repairs will take a lot longer and cost much more than has been reported. Still, Lollapalooza consistently gets a pass and the sunniest of statements are repeated without question.

“Before the festival began, we took several preventative steps to protect sensitive areas of the park and limit the potential for damage,” the Sun-Times quoted C3 majordomo Charlie Jones as saying in his prepared statement. “Now, we’re determined to put the park in better shape than it was before Lollapalooza.”

“C3 Presents said much of the work to seed, resod and otherwise rebeautify the north end of the park from the effects of the three-day festival with about 300,000 attendees will take place over the next week to 10 days,” added the Tribune—and this despite “an Aug. 4 deluge [that] forced Grant Park to be briefly evacuated.”

As per usual, the Chicago Park District and the toothless watchdog group the Grant Park Conservancy readily agreed that, yes, everything is just swell, and absolutely, they sure do love Lollapalooza!

One unasked question, however, is obvious just in those brief quotes above: Why are repairs to the park only beginning to take place “over the next week to 10 days,” a week and a half after the concert ended?

There might be a good answer, but Chicagoans never will know if no one asks the question. Nor will they know that Lollapalooza’s deal with the Park District—both the old one and the new one that keeps the concert in the city’s front yard in perpetuity—is unique among all the agreements the city makes with festivals and other private events in the public parks for not imposing a deadline for clean-up or levying the usual steep fines that kick in if a park is not restored within 24 hours.

An even more significant fact that most Chicagoans will not realize—and I missed it in a recent story as well, until a reader reminded me that I’d already reported it in the initial stories about the Emanuel administration’s new version of the Lollapalooza deal—is that C3 and the Park District now engage an independent third party to assess the post-concert damage and put a dollar figure on making the repairs, after which C3 pays the Park District to make the repairs itself.

Under the old deal, the Austin, Texas-based concert promoters both paid for and performed the restoration work.

Here is the language from the new contract: “Within a reasonable time following the conclusion of each Festival, the independent third-party shall assess the condition of the Festival Area and establish a cost of repairing and restoring the Festival Area to its Pre-Festival Condition. Upon such determination by the independent third party, C3 shall immediately pay to the CPD [Chicago Park District] an amount equal to such repair and restoration costs. C3 shall be financially responsible for all reasonable costs related to repairing and restoring the Festival Area to its pre-Festival condition.”

This, of course, is entirely reasonable: You break it, you buy it makes much more sense than You break it, you fix it, especially when restoring park grounds is not your area of expertise but that of the folks you’re doing business with. But herein are the reasons the media should be especially skeptical about what C3 is saying.

Number one: Last year, it was in C3’s best interest, as part of its never-ending campaign to portray itself as the best thing that ever happened to Grant Park, to say that it spent as much as possible to fix the park, especially when stories began to appear questioning why the repairs were taking so long. “Hey, yes, it’s taking forever, but give us a break: We’re spending a million dollars!” the promoters essentially said.

The media tends to view that money as a gift to the park, when it’s really just the cost of fixing what the concert destroyed. Even more significantly, though, we have no one’s word that C3 actually did spend a million dollars except for C3 itself; as a private company, its books are not open to public scrutiny, unlike those of the Park District.

In contrast, this year, under the new deal with Mayor Emmanuel (whose brother Ari’s Hollywood talent agency owns 50 percent of the concert), C3’s best interest is to say that the work is going to be as inexpensive as possible, because it actually has to put cash on the barrelhead and pay the Park District to make the repairs. Hence the 2012 figure of a mere $150,000 to restore the park.

In other words, last year, C3 was the used-car salesman saying that the rotted-out wreck actually was worth a million bucks. This year, it’s the savvy buyer saying that the junker is worth only about 66 percent of that ridiculous figure.

While seller and buyer still can quibble about condition during a transaction for a used car, there thankfully exists an independent arbitrator to put a dollar-value on the general worth of the thing: the Kelley Blue Book. And the new Lollapalooza deal is set up to inject just such an arbitrator into the Grant Park repairs, which brings up the second key question:

Who was this “independent third party” who said it would take a mere $150,000 to fix Grant Park after Lollapalooza 2012?

This blog is awaiting a response from the Chicago Park District.

UPDATED, 1 p.m. Thursday, with contributions from WBEZ reporter Quinn Ford

At an unrelated press conference midday Thursday, Chicago Park District Superintendent Michael Kelly answered questions about the Grant Park cleanup—and essentially said that C3’s press release about the lower cost of the 2012 effort isn’t the entire story. He named the independent third party brought in to survey the damage, and a Parks District spokesperson did the same for this blogger shortly thereafter: It’s Christy Webber Landscapes, which boasts of being Chicago’s biggest landscaping company.

The firm, of course, is politically connected: Ald. Richard Mell’s daughter, Illinois Rep. Deb Mell, worked there for years, managing and supervising more than $1.5 million worth of work at Millennium Park. Webber did not donate to the Emanuel mayoral campaign, based on a quick search of records on file with the state, but the company certainly got a lot of work under the Daley administration, and the same is holding true under the new mayor. “Can no one else plant flowers in this city?” the political watchdog blog Second City Cop asked last year.

Webber set the $150,000 price tag for cleaning up the damage done, Parks chief Kelly said, but that figure will likely “start ticking up.” He added that he’s hoping the job will be done in time for fall softball season, but that depends on whether Mother Nature cooperates.

“The park’s open now—there were people out there playing softball out there last week—but, you know, you have mud here, mud there… But it’s not as bad as it was last year. It really isn’t. It may look a little beat up, but it’s actually not that bad overall.”

And a clarification:

Before the Park District calls to correct me, I should note that the media stories earlier this week about the $150,000 price tag for the 2012 clean-up all mentioned that this was for the north end of the park, in particular Butler Field. However, Hutchinson Field and the south end of the park are the location of the main stage for the concert, and in years past, they have taken a much harsher beating.

Nevertheless, the Sun-Times story notes: "Chicago Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner said in an emailed statement that the money covers repairs to Butler Field and areas surrounding the field; she said damage assessments and a pricetag was forthcoming for the rest of the park, though the costs weren’t expected to balloon significantly above the $150,000 mark."

Hmmm...

 

Some of this blog’s many earlier reports on Lollapalooza’s shenanigans

Aug. 6: The lessons of Lollapalooza 2012

April 15: The new Lollapalooza deal: A blown opportunity