Economic circumstances weigh on cultural events in Chicago

By Chris Loeber

Residents and visitors alike will enjoy live music in Chicago’s parks and sample the city’s culinary prowess at local food festivals this summer, but a tight budget might thwart the continuity of some events coordinated by the city.

As the city evaluates its festival and event programming as part of an initiative set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2011, “challenging times” may influence which special events will continue, according to Kathleen Strand, director of communications for the Mayor’s Council on Budget, Finance and Economic Development.

“At every level of city government, the mayor is evaluating how to be most efficient with taxpayer dollars,” Strand said. “You have to keep a laser-like focus on making sure that you are finding cost-efficient ways to make sure that visitors can continue to experience all Chicago has to offer and balance that with protecting critical funds.”

The Chicago 2011 Transition Plan, a report drafted following Emanuel’s election that details possible changes for government, calls for a review of Chicago’s events and cultural programs to ensure that the city can continue to effectively and efficiently invest in their production.

Chicago’s Venetian Night on the Lake Michigan shoreline and the Outdoor Film Festival at Grant Park were canceled in 2010 because of budget constraints that restricted the city’s ability to fund events without “taxing the taxpayer,” said Cindy Gatziolis, spokeswoman for the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

“Little by little, a couple things came off of the special events calendar,” Gatziolis said. “The most noticeable for people were things like the Venetian Night that had been around for a while, but again, was really costing more than it generated.”

The 2012 Taste of Chicago, scheduled for July 11–15, has been scaled back from 10 days to five and reorganized to include more involvement with neighborhood food vendors, Gatziolis said.

From 2007–2010, the festival saw decreasing attendance and revenue from corporate sponsors, according to a 2011 DCASE budget hearing document. Additionally, the Taste will charge for tickets to its concerts this year.

While some special events have been modified or canceled, DCASE and other city departments continue to produce almost 2,000 festivals and cultural events annually, according to Gatziolis, who added that there are currently no plans to cancel other

upcoming events.

“We [are keeping] intact the major festivals that people love,” Gatziolis said. “This year we’ve brought back the Gospel Music Festival, so there’s an addition.”

Special events are often valued because of the economic boost they give the city, according to Gatziolis. Their appeal to tourists is especially attractive to city officials, thanks to overseas visitors who on average spend $4,000 per visit, as reported by The Chronicle on April 23.

An event’s fiscal benefits are usually a very small fraction of Chicago’s economy when compared to the city’s gross domestic product, which equates to an estimated $600 billion, according to Allen Sanderson, an economist and senior lecturer at the University of Chicago.

An event like the Chicago Marathon can produce a significant return on investment because it attracts international visitors and does not require funds for facilities, he said.

The 2010 marathon attracted 38,916 participants, 11.3 percent of whom were from outside of the country, and generated approximately $171 million for the city’s economy, according to a 2011 report released by the Regional Economics Applications Laboratories. According to Sanderson, the marathon was actually worth $15 million – $20 million.

“There’s no way that these things pay for themselves, but I think that one ought to think about this as a lot of fun,” Sanderson said. “It’s a big party; it is not always

an investment.”