Fingers crossed, Chicago aldermen authorize full calendar of special events for 2021

Hotel revenues that support the events are down, but a mayoral aide hopes the city’s $1.8 billion in new federal relief-funds can help pay for large summer events, including Taste of Chicago and the Air and Water Show.

SHARE Fingers crossed, Chicago aldermen authorize full calendar of special events for 2021
People enter the 2019 Taste of Chicago on Columbus Drive at Monroe Street in July of that year.

Taste of Chicago was last held in 2019. It was canceled last year due to the coronavirus, but could return this summer. A City Council committee OK’d a full slate of summer events for 2021, but it remains to be seen if they actually will be held.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

A City Council committee on Wednesday authorized a full calendar of the special events Chicagoans treasure — including Taste of Chicago and the Air and Water Show — hoping the city’s $1.8 billion share of new federal relief funds can help bankroll those large-scale summer gatherings.

“I feel very optimistic about summer activities and gatherings this summer. ... I believe that the summer of 2021 is gonna look more like 2019 and less like 2020,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot told reporters.

“We know so much more about this virus, how it spreads than we did a year ago. We know in particular about outside events — that we can manage these in a safe way that’s consistent with public health guidance.”

The mayor was asked whether it’s too soon for Chicagoans to get excited about the return of signature events like the Taste and Lollapalooza. She would only say she is “cautiously optimistic” but not ready to “predict specific events taking place.”

“We’ve been in discussions with various organizers of some large-scale events for some time now. But they also understand that we’ve got to be cautious and follow the public health guidance,” she said.

With vaccinations surging and coronavirus cases dropping, Lightfoot has asked the Chicago Police Department to prepare security plans for Lollapalooza and other massive events.

Just this week, the mayor delighted Cubs and Sox fans by allowing them to return to Wrigley Field and Guaranteed Rate Field, though at 20% of capacity.

On Wednesday, the City Council’s Special Events Committee authorized the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events to hold the “full calendar” of events it normally puts on. That includes everything from Taste of Chicago to the Air and Water Show to the Blues, Jazz and Gospel festivals.

“We are continuing with our discussions with the fifth floor [mayor’s office]. And we are hopeful that there may be in the [Biden coronavirus relief] bill when it’s passed some additional support for arts and culture,” said Mark Kelly, Chicago’s commissioner of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

“I will say that, even though we have a 49% [budget] cut, we’ll be making some announcements in the next several weeks that speak to an ambitious agenda for arts and culture as we, hopefully, emerge” from the pandemic.

Kelly said he’s proud to have generated more than $10 million over the last year for the Arts Illinois Relief Fund, but “that’s just a fraction of the devastation that has been felt within that landscape. ... Our music clubs, our theaters. Largely our museums. The impact is in the billions of dollars in lost revenue and its relationship to tourism. There’s no question that, for the economic recovery of our city, we need to support the arts and cultural landscape because it will play an integral role in that recovery.”

Festival-goers crowd into Grant Park on day one of Lollapalooza on July 31, 2015.

Festival-goers crowded into Grant Park on the first day of the Lollapalooza music festival in 2015. City officials still hope this year’s festival — and other large summer events — can be held after being canceled last year by COVID-19.

Sun-Times file

The mere talk of returning to some semblance of special events normalcy was music to the ears of Ald. Daniel LaSpata (1st).

“I know it’s a routine ordinance, but it is a very hopeful thing to see an ordinance for special and public events in the city as we [welcome people back] to the downtown, to our neighborhoods in a way that is healthy and safe,” LaSpata said.

Wednesday’s optimism was in stark contrast to the dour message Kelly delivered to aldermen just four months ago at Council budget hearings.

Kelly testified then that Lightfoot’s pandemic budget included no funding for Taste of Chicago or the Air and Water Show in 2021. He told aldermen with the convention and tourism industries ground to a halt, the dramatic drop in hotel tax revenue had cut his $50 million budget in half.

“The challenge … is to find a path forward that augments our budget,” Kelly said that day.

“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.”

On Wednesday, Kelly acknowledged under questioning that his department receives no support from the city’s corporate fund and that 60% of his staff has been redeployed over the past year to help with coronavirus testing and vaccinations.

“We were supported with CARES Act money to cover those costs. And we assume that will also carry into 2021,” Kelly said.

“We believe that there will be enough revenue to cover that [$25 million] budget for this year. … But we are also hopeful that there will be additional CARES Act funds that can help support arts recovery in this year.”

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) countered that corporate fund support for DCASE will be needed at some point “until the economy re-invigorates itself.”

“We have to come up with putting our money where our mouth is, especially at a time when we know that the taxes that support this department simply do not exist at this time,” Lopez said.

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