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City overhauls Taste, scales back several lakefront fests

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

The 2011 version of Taste of Chicago will remain free, at Mayor Daley’s insistence. But it will be nothing like the old version. And neither will the city’s other money-losing lakefront festivals.

To reverse $7 million in festival losses over the last three years — and absorb a $2 million cut in Daley’s final budget — the city is handing off the Taste to the Chicago Park District and folding the city’s four least-popular music festivals into the Taste.

Viva Chicago, Country Music, Gospel and Celtic Fests will no longer be stand-alone weekend events with big-name talent. They will be one-day events during the Taste that will focus on local acts.

The remaining six days of the Taste will focus on other “family-oriented” events, including the Grant Park Symphony, Museums in the Park, Midnight Circus, Redmoon Theater and movies in the park.

The revamped Taste of Chicago will run from June 24 through July 3.

The only stand-alone music festivals will be Blues Fest, to be held June 10 to 12, and Jazz Fest, which will run Sept. 2 to 4.

Those Grant Park festivals will continue to be run by the city.

“We realize that many residents and visitors have come to enjoy all of our lakefront festivals. But during tough economic times, we have to make decisions that enable us to maintain essential city services,” said Dorothy Coyle, first deputy commissioner of the city’s newly-merged Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

“This new plan will allow us to continue to produce these festivals, but without the additional expenses associated with maintaining them as stand-alone events.”

Park District Supt. Tim Mitchell said there was no other way to stop the bleeding and still keep the Taste free, as Daley demanded.

“It has to make money. It’s not gonna be a money-loser,” Mitchell said.

“That’s why it’s important to go after sponsorships as well as to look at the entertainment that we will have to make sure it draws families down. ... That’s what we’re gonna try to do: [feature] local talent around the Chicago area.”

Last week, Daley’s plan to privatize the Taste and six other lakefront festivals fell flat on its face.

City Hall rejected a lone bidder’s revised proposal to charge a $10 admission fee to the Taste.

Four months ago, Special Events Director Megan McDonald warned that big-time cuts would be coming to the Taste and the other lakefront festivals if Daley’s plan to privatize the festivals fell flat. She hinted that the least popular fests would get short-shrift.

That’s precisely what happened. Viva Chicago, Country Music, Gospel and Celtic Fests have become the latest targets of the city’s budget crunch, joining Venetian Night and the July 3rd fireworks extravaganza in Grant Park.

The question now is whether restaurants and four days of local music will be enough to draw the same big crowds, many of them suburbanites.

“We think so because it’s a food festival,” Mitchell said.

Coyle added, “The true roots of Taste of Chicago and how it became successful was a celebration of food.”

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