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Custer Fair to leave Evanston after nearly half a century after feud with city

Organizers said they decided to move a month ago to Indiana after poor turnout last year and new fees imposed by Evanston, which said it could no longer subsidize a private event.

The organizers of Custer Fair say they are moving from Evanston to Indiana after a dispute with the city.
The organizers of Custer Fair say they are moving from Evanston to Indiana after a dispute with the city.
Custer Fair via Facebook

The organizers of Custer Fair say they are moving the fair to Indiana after nearly half a century in Evanston because the city sabotaged their attendance numbers last year, leaving them in debt to the city.

Tammy Szostek, who organizes the fair with her husband, Steve, says they decided a month ago to move the fair to Wolf Lake in Hammond, Indiana because of the debt, as well as brand new fees imposed by Evanston.

“We just couldn’t afford it,” Tammy Szostek, 43, told the Sun-Times Wednesday.

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking that something 48 years old has to move,” she said.

Szostek claims the fair, which has been a premier art festival in Evanston for years, took a major hit last year when the the city forced them to install either expensive gates for crowd control, or have the city provide vehicles to serve the same purpose.

They opted for the vehicles, which were cheaper, but there was a backlash from the public when the city parked a large Cook County mobile command labeled “Department of Homeland Security” near the front gate. She said people thought the van housed immigration agents.

“There were protesters and angry emails,” Szostek said. “I told the mayor this hurt the festival financially.”

Bad weather also affected attendance.

Szostek said the fair, which was free to attend, made no money last year and organizers still owe the city $3,500. She said the fees paid to the city usually totaled $30,000 a year.

The two-day festival’s attendance would average about 85,000 a year, with a record-high of 122,000 people in 2018, she said. But attendance dropped to less than 10,000 in 2019.

This year, she said Evanston tacked on additional parking costs that they have no way of paying. She claimed the city hasn’t been responding to their requests to work on a solution.

In response, Evanston Mayor Steve Hagerty said in an emailed statement that he’s upset the fair is moving, calling it “in my opinion, one of the best street fairs in the Chicago area.”

But he said there were many issues with the fair, including organizers’ failure to pay the city and their non-profit partners.

Hagerty listed several possible reasons for the fair’s move, saying it “could be the reaction over the Cook County DHS Command vehicle. It could be the weather. ... It could poor management. It could be that the organizers moved to Indiana a few years back. It could be the fees to cover the city’s expenses. Bottom line, the city can’t be in the business of subsidizing private-sector losses.”

Szostek said she has managed the fair for two years, but has been involved in it with her husband for about 20 years. She said her father-in-law started the festival, but retired from organizing it five years ago.

An Evanston spokesman said several leadership changes in the fair “resulted in instability.”

The city said it was working to replace the fair and “begin a new tradition on Main Street in the years to come.”

Szostek said that moving the fair to Indiana was not their first choice, but that the majority of their vendors are on board with the move. They are planning the festival for June 20 and 21.

“This is a family tradition. I used to come here as a kid, and now I’m bringing my own children,” she said. “I hate taking this from Evanston, but I guess we just expected a little better after bringing the festival to Evanston for so many years.”

This story has been updated to reflect the fair is expected to move to Wolf Lake in Hammond, Indiana not Whiting, Indiana.