MONTROSE BEACH — A fight between Mamby on the Beach music festival organizers and a neighborhood group hasn’t been resolved, but rising lake levels may lead to an unintended compromise.
Jerry Mickelson of JAM Productions said he has no plans to scrap or move the festival to another part of the city — but he is working on a plan to move the festival west due to high lake levels.
When Chicago’s only beachfront music festival announced it would move from the South Side at Oakwood Beach to Montrose Beach in Uptown, some celebrated that the festival grounds would be larger and more accessible by public transit. Others, including some conservationists and community groups, weren’t thrilled.
The trouble for the festival began when a pair of Great Lakes Piping Plovers — a federally endangered bird with only 70 mating pairs — chose to nest at Montrose Beach early this month. Birders immediately sprung into action protecting them around the clock.
Conservationists quickly mobilized and turned their attention to the August festival as having the potential to disrupt the birds’ ability to safely hatch their eggs.
Then, the Montrose Lakefront Coalition — a collection of neighborhood groups and businesses near the beach — asked Jam Productions to move the festival. The group said the festival is too large for a delicate beach with sensitive wildlife areas.
In a letter sent to Chicago Park District officials in late May, the coalition alleged the festival’s presence would deny public access to the Montrose Recreational Area, which includes Montrose Beach, Montrose Harbor, Montrose Point, a dog-friendly area, the Lakefront Trail and Lincoln Park east of Lakeshore Drive.
But Mickelson denies that those areas would be inaccessible and called the neighborhood opposition “underhanded” and “unreasonable.”
“I have not considered moving for one second,” he said. “Why should we be forced to move from a park that we have every right to use?”
Mickelson said he already has contingency plans to move the festival off the beach and inland into the grassy field west of the beach but east of Simonds Drive, due to high lake levels.
‘Who appointed these people as gatekeeper?’
Mickelson, who recently secured funding for the restoration of The Uptown Theatre, said his frustration is primarily directed at the Montrose Lakefront Coalition, and their letter to Chicago Park District CEO Mike Kelly on May 31.
In the letter, the coalition asserts that they learned about the Mamby festival “via news media” reports on May 30.
But Mickelson sent an email to the Montrose Lakefront Coalition three weeks earlier on May 9, asking the coalition to sit down with him and discuss plans for the festival. Mickelson said he did not receive a response from the Montrose Lakefront Coalition until May 29.
Melanie Eckner, a member of the coalition, said that Mickelson should have reached out to the neighborhood group when he originally started the permitting process in 2018.
They also said that the festival would disrupt sensitive wildlife areas and impede revenue for local vendors.
“Their statement is blatantly false,” Mickelson said. He added that Montrose Harbor, Montrose Point, the dog-friendly area and Lincoln Park East of Lakeshore Drive to will all remain open to the public.
Mickelson also noted that the entire lakeshore and portions of the beach will still be accessible to the public, and that Mamby isn’t the first beachfront festival the city has seen.
But even after a June 10 meeting to hash out their differences, Mickelson and the Lakefront Coalition remained deadlocked.
“I think the meeting went fine, but we did not hear that there was any willingness to change venue locations,” Eckner said.
She added that the coalition was upset that Mickelson put tickets on sale just days after setting a meeting with the coalition.
“If he was really planning this since 2018 he should have reached out to the community and the vendors from the get-go,” she said.
Mickelson, however, said he has gone above and beyond trying to be a good neighbor.
“Who appointed these people as the gatekeeper?” he asked. “Parks belong to everyone and we have a right to use the beach and so do other music fans.”
But Eckner said the use of the beach should be reserved for everyday families rather than a private concert.
“If anyone has a right to the lakefront it is the average family, there are only 15 weekends a year that the beach is open,” she said.
What about the birds?
So what will happen to the pair of Piping Plovers who have nested on the beach?
Their eggs were recently removed from the beach and relocated to the Lincoln Park Zoo due to stormy weather. However, birders say the pair, affectionately dubbed “Monty” and “Rose,” are mating again and could lay a second clutch of eggs.
Mike Madalinski, member of the Chicago Ornithological Society, said the danger the fest could pose to wildlife goes beyond the Piping Plovers.
“Even if it wasn’t for the plovers there are other nesting species there,” he said.
Madalinski said that Mamby could “destroy a very fragile ecosystem” on the beach.
With thousands of concert goers, he said it is unlikely that they would be able to be totally contained. That could spell big trouble for wildlife, he said.
Neighbor Ted Jindrich, a 40 year Uptown resident, also opposes the festival. He said he is against having large-scale events at Montrose because it impedes families’ ability to enjoy the beach.
“My main reason for opposition is that a mega money making event will steal the park footprint from Chicago residents who rely on [Montrose Beach] to get out of the house and relax with their families.”
An accidental compromise
Mickelson said park district officials told him there is a strong possibility that the festival will not be able to be staged on the beach because the lake levels will likely swallow much of the beach by August — especially if this rain keeps up.
Backup plans to move the festival inland are already in the process of being drawn up, Mickelson said.
Bringing the festival inland could provide safety for wildlife, especially if the plovers are residing on the beach in August.
“Moving inland would, I guess, be a saving grace,” Madalinski said.
Eckner agreed that moving inland would be a better solution than having the festival on the beach.
She said she can’t imagine a circumstance where the Montrose Lakefront Coalition would approve of the concert being held on the beach.
She said her group is hoping that Mickelson may agree to installing a “sound net” around the habitat of the protected birds.
Although Mickelson is frustrated with the opposition to his festival, he said he will continue trying to work with the Montrose Lakefront Coalition.
He said he has made several offerings to help address the concerns of the coalition.
Mickelson said he offered The Dock — an outdoor bar and restaurant at Montrose Beach — the opportunity to sell food within the venue to recoup any lost revenue. Mickelson still contends that foot traffic from the festival would bring additional business to The Dock.
He also offered to “reimburse financially” the Park Bait Shop popular with fisherman. The coalition has said that the festival would harm the shop’s bottom line. Bait shop owners could not be reached for comment.
Mickelson has offered to pay for private security to keep festival goers away from the boats near the yacht club and off of protected wildlife areas.
“There is no area we cannot secure,” he said.
Eckner said the Montrose Lakefront Coalition is also determined to keep an open dialogue with Mickelson.
“We are willing to talk with him anytime,” she said.
Although Mickelson has an agreement with the park district to put on the event, the permit has not been officially issued.
Often, permits are not issued until just days before an event, and Mickelson said he has no reason to believe the park district wouldn’t issue a permit based on his track record of producing events in Chicago.
Those opposed are likely to continue exploring every option at their disposal. Madalinski said the federal government could step in since the Piping Plovers are federally protected.
He mentioned a pair of Piping Plovers in New Jersey that recently caused the cancelation of a summer beach concert series.
Mickelson, who stands to lose millions if the festival does not go on, reiterated that he has no plans of moving Mamby, but would continue to work with neighbors in hopes of achieving more amicable solutions.
“We are happy to make accommodations,” he said. “And they aren’t even really accommodations, it’s just called being a good neighbor.”
Read the Montrose Lakefront Coalition’s letter to the park district and Jerry Mickelson’s response letter below:
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