Weather Updates

Taste of Chicago won’t be privatized

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Mayor Daley’s plan to privatize the Taste of Chicago has fallen flat.

After declaring that Chicago’s premier lakefront festival would “always be free,” Daley on Tuesday rejected a lone bidder’s revised proposal to charge a $10 admission fee to the Taste.

Celebrate Chicago LLC initially proposed a $20 entrance fee with $10 rebated to patrons in the form of food and beverage tickets. The proposed fee was cut in half to appease Daley, but it was not enough.

The partnership includes the Illinois Restaurant Association and two of the biggest names in live entertainment: JAM Productions and AEG Live.

“While Celebrate Chicago is an experienced special events team that is qualified to manage and operate the lakefront festivals, we believe the proposed entry fee for the Taste of Chicago is unacceptable for Chicagoans and our visitors,” Budget Director Eugene Munin said in a press release.

Despite $7 million in losses over the last three years, the city now plans to keep the Taste and six other lakefront festivals in-house.

“It’s going to be without an admission fee. It may or may not be the same as it was in the past,” said Peter Scales, a spokesman for the city’s Office of Budget and Management.

Daley has argued that the way to stop the financial bleeding is to return the Taste of Chicago to its food roots. He has blamed the recent losses on, what he called “tangents.” That is, the festival that originated as a showcase for Chicago’s rich culinary diversity branched off into live entertainment — the bigger the names, the better.

“This is called a taste of food. We’re not into music. We’re not into anything else. We got into tangents, and the cost kept going up. We’re gonna get it back down and do the Taste of Chicago for food and that’s all,” the mayor said last month.

“We’re not Milwaukee. Milwaukee has a [permanent lakefront] venue that they charge people for festivals. The Taste of Chicago will always be free.”

Until Tuesday, Celebrate Chicago had been pressuring City Hall to move quickly to accept its lone bid because time has long since passed to book top talent.

Now that the city has rejected the only bid, difficult choices must be made.

Last fall, Special Events Director Megan McDonald gave the City Council a preview. She warned that big-time cuts could be coming to the lakefront festivals if the private sector bids did not “come back in the city’s favor.

“We can only do what we have the funding to do and what we’re able to raise money to accomplish,” she said then.

“That might mean moving Country Music Fest back into Taste. It might mean we merge some of our smaller music festivals and do more of a celebratory single festival that addresses all those different genres of music. In a perfect world, people will still see all the same events next year, regardless of who produces them. But [the city] is prepared to do what we can to salvage as many events as we can.”

Illinois Restaurant Association President Sheila O’Grady, the mayor’s former chief of staff, could not be reached for comment on the city’s decision. The association has managed the event’s food and beverage operations for the last 27 years.

Celebrate Chicago, in a statement, said: “We believe our proposal was a good one and one that was responsive to the City’s requirements under the rfp; however, we understand the City’s desire to keep the events free of an admission charge.”

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.