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Chicago street festival donations are down, sources say

Recreational and Sporting Goods Industry

It's just a suggestion, and more Chicagoans are taking it that way when it comes to coughing up cash before entering a fest. 
Suggested donations are a neighborhood fest staple, a product of event organizers attempting to cover costs while still following the city's ordinances prohibiting charging admission to a gathering in the public way. But with a still-struggling economy and an increasing number of festival options in Chicago, festival organizers say donations are way down. Yet a coalition of Chicago neighborhood groups recently called upon some fests in their areas to open up their ledgers and prove that the donated money is going to the right places.

As Chicago comes down from a weekend at Wicker Park's Do-Division and gears up for festivals such as North Center's RibFest and Andersonville's Midsommarfest, the perennial question is asked: Will Chicago choose to pay the piper at the gates again, or duck the donations?

OPINION: To pay or not to pay?

"It's been really hard," said Hank Zemola, CEO of Chicago Special Events Management, which provides fest services like security, gate management and logistics. "Some of these groups have been [hosting fests] for 20 or 25 years, and they are getting really discouraged."

Zemola said donations at fests have sharply declined since 2009. He estimates that fests which may have once peaked at $100,000 in gate donations are now seeing more like $40,000 to $50,000. It's a combination of the public's lack of spending cash, an oversaturation of weekend events and, in many cases, a general misunderstanding by the public of where the money actually goes.

"People don't get it," he said. "They don't get most of these events are fundraisers. They think it's just a big party and don't know where the expenses are."

Zemola -- whose clients include Roscoe Village Burger Fest, Oyster Fest and Wells Street Art Festival, among dozens of others -- explained donations have many uses, which vary event to event. For one, they cover the cost of entertainment. Additionally, the money made can go to a local chamber of commerce or community organization to improve the area throughout the year. In many cases, additional funds are doled out to charities, schools and non-profits in the community.

Specific to Burger Fest, which is hosted by the Roscoe Village Chamber of Commerce, costs exceed $300,000 to put on the event, according to committee chair and chamber president Ron Kinn. About one-third of that cost is covered by donations, which Kinn said have held relatively steady. But the price has gone up, from $7 last year to $8 this year, mostly to cover increasing costs and better entertainment.

"A lot of people don't realize the city is not paying for this," he said. "It's nonprofits putting themselves out there and taking a risk. The percentage of revenue the chamber depends on for these fests is huge. Without them, it would change our model for everything we do in the community."

But the declining donations could signal a reckoning for many.

"I think these next few years are going to be make or break for a lot of events," Zemola said, adding that 2013 was the final year for two of his clients -- Lincoln Park Arts Festival and Lincoln Live Festival -- due to the decreases in donations.

At North Center's RibFest, event management company Big Buzz Ideas has also seen some decline. Melissa Lagowski, the company's owner, said they had once estimated a 75 percent donation rate. Now, it is more like 60 to 70 percent.

"In the last few years, it has been challenging," she said. "Many years ago, our fests used to see much higher donation ratios."

The company has combated the losses with a grant program it offers local nonprofits. At RibFest, for example, about 600 volunteers are needed. Nonprofits are allowed to offer up volunteers in exchange for a guaranteed grant to their organization. The volunteers are then trained to politely greet patrons at the gate, with the hope they'll inform them that their donations are going to benefit their causes.

"They see skepticism at the gates," she said. "People sometimes don't believe [where their money goes] because other fests aren't always upfront and honest."

Steve Jensen, president of the Bucktown Community Organization, shares a certain amount of skepticism of donations. Last week, he and four other community organizations formed a coalition and released a statement, calling for more transparency in their processes when it comes to taking money.

"There's a lot going on in our city and our neighborhoods that people are seemingly taking advantage of us," he said of the coalition, which also includes the Wicker Park Committee, Ukrainian Village Neighborhood Association, East Village Association and Chicago Grand Neighbors Association. "If the neighborhoods are going to bear the brunt of these [fests] -- everything from people parking on our side streets to drunken urination and fights -- we felt that it was our time to demand where the finances go."
 Jensen said the coalition was formed after several occasions when questions about finances were "misdirected or ignored" by different organizations that host fests in those neighborhoods. After releasing the statement, Jensen said they have already gotten preliminary numbers from Do-Division and West Fest, but are still waiting on others.

"This is not to be misconstrued that we're looking for money," he said. "We need ... the true transparent information in order for us to champion these fests."

At the end of the day, though, it's going to be up to patrons on whether they'll take the "suggestion." "I try to pay when I can," said Azure Anderson, 23, of Rogers Park, "especially if it's a neighborhood I am familiar with or work in or am a frequent visitor in. I know it is going to make a difference."

Northwestern student and North Center resident Michael McCarthy, 20, isn't sold on the suggestion. He skipped donations more often than not last summer.

"Once I realized they're not going to chase after me, I'd rather save that $5 and spend it inside," he said. "It's just a suggestion, do I really need to pay that much?"

mswasko@tribune.com | @swasko

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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