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Aldermen approve plan to charge $25 for Taste concert seats

Updated: April 18, 2012 5:01PM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to charge $25 for concert seats at Taste of Chicago that have long been free sailed through the City Council Wednesday in hopes it will help reverse three years of losses at Chicago’s premier summer festival.

Emanuel said he couldn’t guarantee the plan will end the losses, but he said something had to be done.

“I don’t know of its gonna work” to put Taste in the black, Emanuel said. “But I do know this: The past was to continue to bleed money.”

Also on Wednesday, the city choose the Illinois Restaurant Association to continue to manage food, beverage and ticket services at the Taste in exchange for a $308,691 management fee.

The fundamental change in the way the Taste is financed comes one week after Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Michelle Boone assured aldermen that $25 will turn out to be a bargain when the list of “national headliners” with whom she is negotiating is unveiled.

“You would not be able to see the same caliber of talent anywhere for $25 that I know of,” Boone told a City Council committee last week, refusing to name names.

“The $25 for seating in the Petrillo bandshell is considerably less than the market value. Other large outdoor concerts, such as Ravinia and [Milwaukee’s] SummerFest, typically charge between $50 to $100 for similar experiences to see other national headlining acts. These sales would help alleviate some of the financial burden on the city and its taxpayers.”

To reverse three years of losses, $1 million of it last year alone, Emanuel has cut Taste of Chicago in half — from 10 days to five—and bumped it to July 11-to-15 from its prime position around July 4th. Last year’s Taste cost $10 million. This year’s budget is $6.8 million.

The decision to sell 3,000 reserved seats-a-night at Petrillo--and separately sell three-course, sit down meals for $40 prepared by a “Celebrity chef-du-jour”-- is part of the effort to “keep the Taste free, while making it a more fiscally responsible event,” Boone said.

Without knowing the caliber of musical talent Taste patrons will be asked to pay for, most aldermen have been all for the $25 fee.

Ald. John Arena (45th) has applauded Boone for striking the appropriate “balance”— by freezing the price of food and beverage tickets and steering clear of a general admission fee.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), chairman of the Committee on Special Events Committee and Cultural Affairs, has suggested selling even more concert seats. He has also thanked Boone for contracting with a ticket broker so aldermen don’t have to field ticket requests.

“This is a good test … to see what people are willing to do to keep good things in the city of Chicago at a reasonable price,” Burnett said.

“If need be, after we see how this is going, [the city could see] if it’s possible to be able to sell more seats if people are willing to buy it. ... Most of the nightclubs in Chicago — the average one charges $20 and they stay filled every night. $25 or $20 is not a big deal to get good entertainment and have a good time.”

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) had been the lone dissenter. He argued that Taste of Chicago is “on its last legs” and that it may be time to scrap the event altogether.

“Safety concerns. Lack of interest. There are so many other events that are happening. They called it the premiere summer event, [but now] there are many other places to go,” Fioretti said.

Boone has said she’s not yet willing to throw in the towel.

“It’s true that the event has operated in the red the last three years. But, we’re really excited about the changes and have every reason to be hopeful that the event will see that trend turn around,” she said.

Last year’s Taste drew 2.35 million visitors — down 11 percent from 2010 and 37.5 percent from the event’s 2006 and 2007 heyday.

The 59 participating restaurants made $4.9 million—20 percent less than the year before. The losses were blamed on the Chicago Park District’s decision to close earlier, cancel the city’s official fireworks show, fold Chicago’s four least popular music festivals into the Taste and focus on local talent and family-oriented events, instead of big name entertainment.

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