This is part of a Block Club Chicago series about street fests. Read part two here.
CHICAGO — A local special events company has routinely charged people online to enter some of Chicago’s most popular street fests against city rules.
Star Events, which has contracts to organize street festivals like Taste of Randolph in the West Loop, Midsommarfest in Andersonville and Mayfest in Lincoln Park, routinely sold tickets to the events or advertised a ticket is required, according to online posts reviewed by Block Club Chicago. The practice has sparked controversy among fest goers over the way the events are operated.
Under city rules, fests that take over city-owned streets can request a donation and often have “suggested donation” amounts posted at the gate. But events in the public way can’t charge a mandatory entrance fee. They’re also required to post signs at the festival entrances indicating that entry is free, according to the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, which regulates street fests.
Earlier this summer, Star Events was required to change its language online ahead of Taste of Randolph after the company presold tickets online and advertised that fest admission was $10 when in fact it was free.
Taste of Randolph is staged by Star Events and the West Loop Community Organization, which financially benefits from the fest. In promotional emails, listings on on Star Events’ website and on a third-party site, Bucketlisters, organizers stated entrance to the fest was $10.
On Bucketlisters, general admission tickets were sold for $10. Organizers said the language was in error, and after fielding complaints, city officials instructed them to change the language to make it clear the $10 was a suggested donation.
But a Block Club review of past online postings found that Star Events used similar language advertising Mayfest in May, Midsommarfest in June and Clark After Dark planned for Thursday night in River North.
On its own website, Star Events advertised these street fests could be accessed “for only $10” with a “$10 general admission ticket” or were “$10 at the door.” The website postings did not say the $10 fee was a voluntary suggested donation. Mayfest and Midsommarfest listings also included a link to purchase tickets.
Officials with the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events confirmed they received complaints about admission fees at Taste of Randolph. But they wouldn’t say whether they also fielded complaints about other Star Events-run fests.
“As is our practice, DCASE continues to communicate with all neighborhood street festivals on a regular basis, and works directly with organizers to resolve issues if they arise,” department officials said in an email.
John Barry, CEO of Star Events, initially said in an email the company always uses the term “donation” at festival “entrances and in all digital and print collateral.”
“Our website clearly states the donation verbiage required by the city of Chicago. As event producers, we have always followed the city guidelines. If we made any mistakes or should have informed our visitors about the ability to attend for free, it has been corrected,” Barry wrote in an email July 16.
On July 17, Block Club asked Barry about the wording used for Mayfest, Midsommarfest and Clark After Dark in online marketing, which did not include the word “donation.” Star Events then changed the wording on its website to include “donation.”
“All of our web pages have been updated to reflect the donation verbiage. We talk to the city often, and nothing related to your article’s focus has been brought to our attention,” Barry said in an email July 17.
Officials with the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce, which benefits annually from Midsommarfest, said they did not know or agree to Star Events posting the event and selling tickets on Bucketlisters. When Laura Austin, the chamber’s executive director, saw the listing, she asked Star Events to take it down, she said.
“I had reached out to ask them to take it down immediately because this was not something that we had sanctioned for our event,” Austin said.
The Bucketlisters listing said a free drink was included with the price of an online ticket. Austin worried this could be interpreted as free alcohol in exchange for a ticket which is illegal in Illinois, she said.
“It puts us in jeopardy since we are the liquor license holders for the event,” Austin said.
Barry said in an email the Bucketlister posting was deactivated after the chamber reached out to the company on May 19.
“There was no message that the free beverage or drink was alcoholic. However, upon reflection, we acknowledge how this may have been interpreted that way. Clarification of language is of the utmost priority,” Barry said in an email.
Still, Austin said she and her team received at least five Bucketlister tickets from fest goers who were looking for their free drink.
“I really wish the communication would have been stronger on that,” Austin said. ” … It sours our event goers’ experience to show up and not get what they paid for.”
Fest Attendees Felt Forced To Pay At The Gate
Attendees at street festivals operated by a variety of organizers expressed frustration over the way volunteers ask for donations at the gate. In many cases, aggressive volunteers told them a fee was required to enter the fest, they said.
When checking out Taste of Randolph before a dinner reservation, Courtney Sprewer said she was told “point blank” she needed a $10 wristband to enter the street fest.
“So I can’t enter the festival grounds without a wristband and you won’t give me the wristband if I don’t pay you $10? That’s a required donation,” Sprewer said.
The gate worker pulled Sprewer to the side while others around her piled in, clamoring to scan a QR code and pay $10 for entry, Sprewer said.
Sprewer refused to pay. After a number of people coughed up money to enter the fest and the line dwindled, the man working the gate eventually gave her a wristband. She entered the fest with her sister without paying.
“It’s just gross and scammy,” Sprewer said. “It’s like you can shame me or embarrass me or make a big deal about the $10 in front of a group of people.”
When Gabriel Mendoza recently attended the Roscoe Village Burger Fest, volunteers at the gate told him it cost $10 to enter, he said. He paid because he felt forced, he said.
“They said ‘$10, please.’ It wasn’t a question. It was just more of a statement. Which … indicated to me that it was a fee. You got to pay it to get in,” Mendoza said.
Brandon Tamayo was so frustrated with his experience at Pride Fest in Northalsted that he made a TikTok video educating others about suggested donations and Chicago’s street fest rules. The fest is operated by the company Special Events Management and the Northalsted Business Alliance.
Tamayo said narrow gates and volunteers posted in front of fest entrances can make it appear payment is required to enter although it’s not. When he approached a Pride Fest entrance, people were lined up to pay to get in, he said. Tamayo didn’t want to make a donation, and he went to the front of the line to enter.
“They’re just like, ‘You’re not going to donate?’ or ‘You’re not going to pay?'” Tomayo said. “I’m like, ‘No.'”
Leaders of the Northalsted Business Alliance said they never force anyone to donate, but will continue to “passionately encourage” fest goers to do so. Revenue from Pride Fest helps pay for the event, supports community and business improvement initiatives within the district and LGBTQ+ charities, officials said.
In addition to Pride Fest, Special Events Management also organizes Burger Fest. Company officials said they never force people to donate, but they do encourage people to do it.
It’s a common misconception in Chicago that taxes help pay for street fests, company officials said, and typically no more than 50 percent of attendees donate.
“Events in the city of Chicago cannot happen without gate donations … All our events that we manage are community fundraisers for local non-profit organizations,” a Special Events Management spokesperson said in an email.
Some Local Businesses Say Street Fests Are Disruptive
Aggressive asks for “suggested donations” have miffed Chicagoans for decades. Every few years, the conversation on how they are communicated resurfaces, as do concerns over whether street festivals benefit local communities.
Street festivals can bring thousands of people to a neighborhood, and for local businesses that means potential new customers. But two local businesses in Lincoln Park said their experiences with Mayfest left them feeling unenthused about the festival’s return.
Formerly a parking lot block party in Lakeview, Mayfest moved to Armitage Avenue last year. Elle Shrader, co-owner of City Haus Interiors, a high-end interior design shop, said when the festival was first brought to the street she didn’t know much about it.
Shrader was optimistic when a Star Events employee first dropped off flyers for the fest. They decided to hang one of the promotional visuals on the store’s front window.
“We were like, ‘This seems like something that would be exciting to bring to the community,'” Shrader said.
But their enthusiasm quickly faded. In 2022, Star Events staged a band near the shop’s entrance, which attracted crowds of drunk people who came into the shop, often with drinks in their hands.
The store was full of designer ceramics and furniture valued at up to several thousand dollars, and the crowds stumbling in made Shrader nervous.
“We have a lot of like expensive, breakable items in here…. And drinks getting spilled in here, which is never great. And then the second year rolled around; we decided to close our business due to what happened the year before,” Shrader said.
Two doors down from Shrader’s shop, owners at Off Premise, a specialty beer, wine and liquor store, said they were also disappointed with how the festival was run.
Owner Adam Kamin said although he saw heavy foot traffic into the shop during the fest’s first year, he sold mostly $5 single cans of seltzer and beer. Compared with the typical sale of a bottle of wine or liquor for $100 or more, Kamin said his sales were “average.”
“I can’t say that there was a loss of business. I would say that it was a lot harder to make the money that I would normally make,” Kamin said.
In March, a representative from Star Events stopped in and asked Kamin if he would be interested in buying a booth at the event at a 20 percent discount, Kamin said.
Kamin said when he refused, the representative told him fest organizers would block off entrance to his store. Kamin saw this as a threat.
Star Events installed a large generator on the street in front of Off Premise and fencing all around the event footprint. The large generator blocked the view of Off Premise from the street and made it difficult for customers to enter, Kamin said.
When asked about Kamin’s complaints, Barry, the CEO of Star Events, said fest permits allow organizers “to utilize the street(s) for our purposes and does not allow (nor would we) the ability to block the storefront’s sidewalk for any business.”
Barry said Mayfest and other festivals like it require larger dumpsters, portable bathrooms, tents, generators and more that could “slightly obscure what entity is located off the street,” which is a common occurrence. Barry included photos from other street festivals hosted by Star Events to show how dumpsters and generators were used at other similar events.
But Kamin said he believes the festival’s setup purposely obscured the view of his shop and as a result, foot traffic to his shop plummeted.
“Most of our customers, our regular customers, wouldn’t come in,” Kamin said. “… They were trying to come here … but they [felt they] couldn’t come in without paying the $10.”
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: