Fans cheer as Coheed and Cambria performs during the first night of Riot Fest in Douglass Park on Sept. 17, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — After West Siders blasted the Chicago Park District for approving large music fests in local parks over their objections, a West Side lawmaker is floating an idea to ensure those neighborhoods benefit from the multimillion-dollar events.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford wants major events like Riot Fest to include a 2 percent community benefits tax, he told Block Club. Ford had the idea after reading about Riot Fest and Re:SET being approved in North Lawndale and Belmont Cragin respectively.

Riot Fest is scheduled for Sept. 15-17 at Douglass Park, 1401 S. Sacramento Drive. Re:SET will happen at Riis Park, 6100 W. Fullerton Ave., Friday to Sunday.

Park District officials repeatedly have said private events create profits that benefit the entire public parks system. Riot Fest promoters previously said their festival generated $14 million in revenue for the Park District since 2015.

But parks officials also have said that money doesn’t necessarily funnel back directly to the neighborhood parks the host the festivals, which has rankled residents and prompted questions about how much private events benefit locals.

A tax earmarked for specific parks could help rectify that issue, Ford said.

“The festival organizers are going to spend some money to put the park back after their event, but at the end of the day they’re going to walk away with a profit and are better off as a result,” Ford said. “We need the park and the community to be put back whole and made better than when they found it as a result of these events.” 

Fans watch Sublime performs with Rome during the first night of Riot Fest in Douglass Park on Sept. 17, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Ford’s idea builds off the concept of the special service area tax already in use along the city’s commercial corridors, he said.

The special service area model has the city contract with a local nonprofit, typically a chamber of commerce, to oversee several improvement projects along the business districts. The upgrades are paid for by revenue generated by the special service area tax.

A community benefits tax for ticket prices would apply that same idea behind special service areas to the communities around parks hosting private events, Ford said.

“The community would designate where that money goes, which nonprofit will control the revenue from that tax. So it doesn’t go to the park district. Instead, this community benefits agreement would have the community determine where they actually want to put this revenue,” Ford said. 

The Park District should remain responsible for maintenance and beautification of their parks because taxpayers are already paying them to do that, Ford said.

“But this ticket fee is a chance, in my opinion, for things like scholarships for students who might want to use the park’s programing but can’t afford the fees to attend,” Ford said. “And to deal with some of the other issues in the neighborhood, like helping people struggling to pay rent. It should not be used for park beautification because I think that the city must hold to that responsibility.”

Dominic Basta, who plans to attend Re:SET with his husband and best friend, said Ford’s idea for a ticket fee sounds like a good idea.

“Why not? I wouldn’t mind and wouldn’t think twice about a tax like that. Because there are so many service fees to begin with anyways,” Basta said. “It wouldn’t be a deterrent at all and sounds like a better initiative than what other people are coming up with.” 

The lagoon at Riis Park in Belmont Cragin on Dec. 2, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

How Could Chicago Adopt This Idea?

Ford said he is exploring how this ticket fee could work at the state level. The city of Chicago, as a home rule entity, could have similar legislation passed via a referendum ballot question or as a new City Council ordinance, he said.

Re:SET was approved by park officials after a months-long process that both neighbors and ticket holders said was confusing and frustrating

Belmont Cragin Ald. Ruth Cruz (30th) said she has been working on legislation to bring more transparency to how major events are approved to prevent a repeat of the months-long process around Re:SET.

Cruz told Block Club she’ll reach out to Ford in order to collaborate on his idea at the city level. 

There’s a lack of trust between neighbors and elected officials over how Re:SET was approved, and some are skeptical promoters will follow through on their promises to host movies in the park, holiday giveaways and back to school events, she said. 

“What the community has seen in the past is the promoters promising all these great things but, especially at that park district meeting Wednesday, residents still saying ‘So where are these promises?’” Cruz said. “Just like everyone else making a profit, the communities also want to benefit from these concerts.”

The crowd moshes as Black Midi performs during the first day of Pitchfork Music Festival at Union Park on Sept. 10, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Logan Square neighbor John Fitzgerald also said he supports the idea to ensure ticket sale revenue benefits the park hosting the event. 

He used to play softball at Union Park, 1501 W. Randolph St. Even though Pitchfork Music Festival has been hosted at the park since 2006, its baseball diamonds needed repairs and better drainage, he said. Those problems persisted event after Pitchfork cleaned up the damage from the concerts, Fitzgerald said.

“And it’s like, there’s all this money flowing in here, could they make these fields not shi—? That would be really nice,” Fitzgerald said.

Fabian Cisneros, the community engagement and economic development manager for the Northwest Side Community Development Corporation, was part of the neighborhood effort to block Re:SET.

Cisneros said Ford’s idea for the tax is a good start, but the financial burden should be on promoters hosting private events at public parks and not the people buying a ticket to attend, he said.

“Why should our residents be taxed twice if they buy a ticket to take care of their parks as opposed to the festival promoters have millions of dollars for fencing, staging and everything else?” Cisneros said. “They would be able to afford that additional tax.”

Park advisory councils should be the nonprofits overseeing revenue from Ford’s proposed tax, Cisneros said. Those members are volunteer, elected positions accountable to neighbors and would need to report their revenue intake and expenditures to the public, he said. 

“Park advisory council members are voted on by the community. They’re funded by the community and so the community will get to choose where that money goes, right?” Cisneros said. “The park advisory council will know if the community needs a new soccer field or if they want better drainage protection from the rain or a new food kiosk. They’ll know where that money should be spent.” 

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Lincoln Square, North Center, Irving Park reporterrnrnalex@blockclubchi.orgnnLincoln Square, North Center, Irving Park Twitter @avhndz