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No funding for Taste of Chicago or Air and Water Show in 2021, top mayoral aide says

Although the Taste hasn’t been canceled, the pandemic has halved the city’s $50 million budget for cultural affairs and special events.

The Breitling Jet Team, flying L-39C Albatros jets, took part in Chicago Air and Water Show in 2015.
The Breitling Jet Team, shown here flying by North Avenue Beach, performed at the Chicago Air and Water Show in 2015.
Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s pandemic budget includes no funding next year for Taste of Chicago or the Air and Water Show, generating $9 million in “potential savings,” a top mayoral aide said Thursday.

“We have not canceled Taste. But we don’t have funding at this time,” said Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Mark Kelly.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said it’s “way too premature to speculate” about 2021 events.

But as the city finds itself in the middle of a “second surge” of the COVID-19 pandemic that has Chicago’s positivity rate pushing 11 percent, she said, “Now is not the time for us to really be thinking much about creating outdoor events.”

Testifying virtually at City Council budget hearings, Kelly said the pandemic has cut his $50 million budget in half, forcing Millennium Park to “pare down to a very bare-bones operation.”

That’s largely because the convention and tourism businesses has ground to a halt, triggering a dramatic drop in the hotel tax revenue that supports 56% of his budget.

“The challenge … is to find a path forward that augments our budget. ... We have to find new strategies to better support the cultural landscape,” Kelly said.

“All of our theaters are dark. All of our dance venues can’t perform. All of our music clubs. There is total devastation of the cultural landscape. It helps us understand how necessary that cultural landscape is to the city.”

People enter the 2019 Taste of Chicago on Columbus Drive at Monroe Street in July of that year.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2021 budget, ravaged by the ongoing pandemic, has no funding for the annual Taste of Chicago in Grant Park.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

After conferring with the Department of Public Health, Kelly said he hopes “somewhere roughly around June 1,” it will be safe for people who live, work and visit Chicago to “start to re-enter the public realm.”

“With a vaccine, there is hope that, sometime this summer, we’re gonna be allowing for special event permits and that there will be some sort of public life,” said.

“What form it will take [is not known]. Will it be [with] social distancing? Will there be masks? Will there be a capacity number? But I expect a very different environment by the time we get to fall.”

In the meantime, Kelly is still making plans.

When it’s safe to reopen, he’s planning to move away from the “grand festival setting” at Millennium Park and toward smaller events showcasing a Chicago club scene now fighting for survival.

“I want Jazz Fest and Blues Fest and House Fest and Gospel Fest to be city festivals — not Millennium Park festivals. We want this to be about the clubs, about the venues, about ticketed events. It’s not just about free. We’ve got to support artists and the cultural landscape,” Kelly said.

“We need to establish that, if you love music, you don’t go to Austin or Nashville or New Orleans. You go to Chicago. You go to the clubs.”

Aided by $20 million from the Chicago Park District, Kelly is working to renovate and “truly animate” the city’s 19 cultural centers, the vast majority of which are on the South and West Sides.

He’s working with Chicago-born rapper Common — and “talking to all the big producers”—to “bring a new sound studio” to the Regal Theater, promising “another announcement very soon.”

And Kelly is trying hard to capture more film and television production for Chicago, as recommended by Lightfoot’s COVID-19 Recovery Task Force.

That’s an industry that had a “banner year” in 2019, with 3,700 filming permits, only to plummet to 500 permits this year.

Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) represents a West Side ward that includes Cinespace Studios, where NBC’s “Chicago P.D.” and “Chicago Fire” are filmed.

“I’d love to have a conversation with you … about expansion at Cinespace as well. They’re looking for land on the West Side of Chicago to further the things that they’re doing. They have so many shows over there, they can’t even keep them on set. And the soundstages that they have are still full, even though there is no filming going on, because it is a tax credit,” Scott said.

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) told Kelly he “wishes I could share your optimism” about a return to live events by mid-2021. But Vasquez fears even with a vaccine, Chicago residents and visitors alike will be afraid to flock to live events.

A former rapper, Vasquez said he was “heartbroken” by the 49% budget cut Kelly’s department has endured.

“If you are getting zero from the corporate fund and it’s not matching up to what other cities are doing, we are in bad shape as a city,” Vasquez said.

“I would not be here without Chicago art. I wouldn’t have learned how to hustle, how to be an entrepreneur, how to express myself, gain confidence, stay out of the streets. I don’t think we really understand the value of this department.”