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City is planning $1 million Great Chicago fire festival

The GreChicago Fire  |  Courtesy Glen Ellyn Historical Society

The Great Chicago Fire | Courtesy Glen Ellyn Historical Society

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Updated: December 2, 2013 12:08PM

Four years after sinking Venetian Night to save $300,000, City Hall has set aside $1 million for a “Great Chicago Fire Festival” along the Chicago River that will culminate in floats being set on fire.

Testifying Wednesday at City Council budget hearings, Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Michelle Boone also disclosed that her budget includes an extra $3.6 million because the city is “accelerating the payment of debt” issued to build $475 million Millennium Park.

Plagued by cost overruns and add-ons that more than tripled its original budget, Millennium Park will turn 10 in 2014. The city is in the process of planning a celebration for the showcase park that has emerged as one of Chicago’s most popular tourist attractions.

The Great Chicago Fire Festival is a partnership with the Redmoon Theater company that is scheduled to be held next fall.

It will feature acrobatics and live music and culminate in a “procession of illuminated fiberglass sculptures” on the main branch of the Chicago River.

Redmoon plans to work with artists and community groups to “imagine the thing they most want to be rid of in their lives” and create floating sculptures symbolizing those impediments that will be torched in a “huge public ritual” with “cathartic” power.

On Wednesday, Boone disclosed that the city has a “working budget” of $1 million for the spectacular event commemorating the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

“It will be a pretty dynamic event….It will begin with placing artists-in-residence in a number of communities….Communities will be invited to nominate artists who will work with community members to create art pieces that will be part of a major procession along the river that will culminate with an event that brings some programming to the riverfront,” Boone said.

In 2009, Venetian Night, the annual parade of illuminated boat floats, was sunk by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, ending a 52-year-old summer tradition. City Hall said it could no longer afford to spend $100,000 for fireworks and $200,000 for security.

The decision to spend more than three times that amount for a new festival with danger built in — with floats set on fire by a “floating mechanical crane” — ignited skeptical questions from Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th).

When Austin asked how much revenue the new festival might generate, Boone said none was anticipated because the event will be free.

“You don’t see it generating any money — at all?... For us to put out money to have an event and then don’t have anything coming back means we’re just putting money out,” Austin said.

Boone pointed to the fact that Taste of Chicago finally turned a $272,000 profit this year and generated an estimated $106 million in economic activity.

“Hotel stays. People who come downtown for the event also will go to restaurants and do some other shopping. So, these things don’t just kind of happen in isolation with money going out” and nothing coming back in, Boone said.

Boone left the budget hearing without answering reporters’ questions. Five hours later, her spokesperson claimed the $1 million is the “working budget for the festival” and that only $250,000 of it would come from the city to bankroll “community engagement.”

The rest will be recovered from the private sector after a fundraising campaign spearheaded by Redmoon, the spokesperson said.


Twitter: @fspielman

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