The push to privatize Taste of Chicago is back on… and the debate continues
UPDATED THURSDAY MORNING: I was a little off on my ancient history in the original version of this piece regarding Chicagofest and Taste of Chicago (see bullet points numbers one and two below) and Whet Moser has corrected me on that in Chicago magazine's staff blog while seconding some of the other issues I've raised and reiterating the call for some bigger, broader thinking in remaking Taste of Chicago because "the combination of the two—a broad menu of pop acts and free admission—isn't working."
First, the lame-duck Daley administration issued a request for proposals to privatize Taste of Chicago and the six other city-run music festivals in Grant Park, not long after the Mayor granted that they probably would have to charge admission to survive in the midst of the current budget crisis.
Then, after only one entity responded—and it wasn’t one of the promoters on his list of personal favorites (i.e., not C3 Presents or Ticketmaster/Live Nation)—our thankfully short-term, music-hating chief executive arbitrarily decreed that he disliked the plan and Taste of Chicago must remain free forever (with the allegedly independent panel actually making the decision promptly voting his way).
Now, the push to privatize Taste of Chicago is back, with Daley reversing himself yet again in statements reported by the Tribune and the Sun-Times on Tuesday. Here’s the Trib, which was first up online with the story:
There’s still time to find a private company to run Taste of Chicago this summer, with no entrance fee and a focus on food rather than music, Mayor Richard Daley said today.
The Daley administration rejected the lone bidder to run the Taste and other summer festivals last week, turning down a plan by Celebrate Chicago—a joint venture of the Illinois Restaurant Association, Jam Productions and AEG Live—to charge $20 for admission to the city’s premier summer lakefront party.
But Daley today said he remains committed to find a “private partner” to take over Taste because it's too expensive for the city to keep running it.
The mayor said a private company could turn a profit on Taste by concentrating on offering food rather than luring in expensive, big-name musical acts to perform in Grant Park.
“Originally, we never had an admission fee. What is happening, the cost, all the musicals got so costly that they put money into the musicals without-–forgetting it'’s Taste of Chicago, it’s not a music fest.”
“It will always be free,” said Daley, whose stance against charging an entrance fee has hardened since he first floated the idea of privatizing Taste.
Let’s count just a few of the things wrong with this picture, shall we?
1. Taste of Chicago is not, in fact, free; one must purchase not inexpensive tickets if one is going to do anything other than smell the food (or, in the past, listen to the music).
Taste of Chicago has never been just about food; in fact, with its start as Chicagofest, it primarily was a music festival, and the music has been at least as important a part of the festivities as the food for the last 25 years. Despite what the mayor says, music has in fact been a key part of the draw at Taste of Chicago for at least the last two decades.
3. All of this flip-flopping does nothing to counter the argument that many have made that Daley had a specific winner in mind when the request for proposals was issued, and when that candidate did not bid, he simply changed the rules. Can you say “lawsuit,” Mr. Mayor?
4. Discussion of the other six music festivals has been almost entirely absent from Daley’s public comments on privatization—including any mention of the Blues Festival, which, in the home of the blues, should be a world-class event and might have been once again if the Celebrate Chicago bid hadn’t been torpedoed. (AEG co-promotes one of the best blues/roots festivals in the world, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.) Instead, the Blues Festival and the others are doomed to extinction at worst if they fall prey to budget cuts, or they’ll be sentenced to a future of stultifying mediocrity at best if running them is left to the patronage hacks at what used to be the Mayor’s Office of Special Events (and is now the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events).
5. Daley never has made his complete and utter disdain for music in Chicago more obvious than he has with every public utterance he’s made about Taste.
6. Daley rarely has made his complete and utter disdain for democracy and public debate more obvious than he has with this push toward privatization. Where are the public hearings to discuss the future of the festivals? Where is the blue-ribbon panel from all corners of the music community examining the issue and making suggestions? For that matter, where is any pretense at all of the Chicago Park District and the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events having any autonomy whatsoever in this process?
7. Can anyone anywhere, regardless of political allegiances, come up with one good reason why this issue—as well as the future of concerts on Northerly Island—should not be left for the next administration to consider and act upon, given that the remainder of this one now can be measured in days, and the next one will be left with the ramifications of anything this one does before it finally says goodbye?
8. Why the heck aren’t any of the candidates who aren’t Rahm Emanuel outraged about all of this?
Good questions, one and all (and Greg Kot of the Tribune raises many of the same ones and makes a few other cogent points in his examination of the privatization issue here). And while there may not be any answers forthcoming, at least the issues will be discussed tonight starting at 6:30 p.m. when the Better Government Association hosts a panel discussion moderated by the organization’s president Andy Shaw and featuring this reporter, Dan Mihalopoulos of the Chicago News Coop, and attorney John Schmidt on the second floor of the 618 S. Michigan building at Columbia College Chicago. Admission is free, and more information can be found here.
Earlier reports in this blog about privatizing the city festivals and the battle between the Mayor’s Office of Special Events and the Department of Cultural Affairs: