Following Lollapalooza’s long and lucrative run in Chicago, the future of the flagship music festival is still to be determined, with its decade-old contract ending this year.
But as producers negotiate with city officials on a pact to keep Lollapalooza in town, some residents, aldermen and parks advocates wonder if they’ll have any say in the decision — especially after the Chicago Park District quietly executed a one-year contract extension for this year’s festival without any public discussion or vote.
Grant Park will welcome more than 170 acts and hundreds of thousands of music lovers for Lollapalooza starting Thursday. The two aldermen whose wards include the downtown park recognize that Chicago’s largest music festival is a major economic driver for the city, even as they field complaints each year about noise, trash, street closures and attendees whose partying got out of hand.
Both aldermen have a wish list for the next Lollapalooza contract but say they haven’t been invited to any discussions the city has had about the festival’s future. Nor did they participate in the Park District’s one-year extension of the current contract to allow the four-day event to happen this year.
“I didn’t hear from the city about (the NASCAR race that will take place downtown next summer) and they were having negotiations for over a year, I hear. The alderpeople who represent the community not having heard from this administration is a problem,” said Ald. Sophia King, 4th. “We are uniquely positioned to share what our communities are saying, and it’s important for that voice to be heard.”
Friends of the Parks, one of the city’s most active park advocacy and preservation groups, is also out of the loop.
“Neither the city nor the Chicago Park District have communicated with us about Lollapalooza negotiations,” Executive Director Juanita Irizarry told the Tribune. “We are not informed or aware of any details.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office declined to comment on the status of negotiations, referring questions to the Park District. These talks are the first for Lightfoot’s pick for Park District superintendent, Rosa Escareño, who took the helm in the wake of a lifeguard sexual abuse scandal. Former Superintendent Mike Kelly, who helped forge the 2012 Lollapalooza contract, resigned under pressure from City Hall a month after the one-year extension was signed.
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the Tribune obtained a copy of the extension to the Lollapalooza contract that was set to end in December 2021. The Park District and festival organizer C3 Presents inked the deal on Sept. 9, 2021 — weeks after the 2022 Lollapalooza dates were announced. The district redacted the signatures on the copy provided to the Tribune, citing “private information.”
Park District spokeswoman Michele Lemons would not say who executed the agreement or whether it received park board approval. District records indicate that in 2012 the board authorized the superintendent to revise and amend the Lollapalooza agreement without commissioners’ signoff.
Discussions involving Lollapalooza — once a traveling festival that found a home in Grant Park in 2005 — have long been kept out of the public sphere. Lemons told the Tribune days ago that the Park District and C3 are “engaged in negotiations, and we are hopeful that we will have an agreement in the near future that takes Lollapalooza well beyond 2022.”
Indeed, C3 has been signaling it intends to stay in Chicago for several years. The Texas-based concert promoter recently celebrated the first of a five-year commitment to supporting arts education in Chicago Public Schools. C3 also held its inaugural Lollapalooza job fair in the spring and expanded its partnership with the nonprofit organization After School Matters.
“The festival has always been a part of the fabric of Chicago, and it’s been a very generous partner to a number of organizations,” C3 Chief Operating Officer Emmett Beliveau told the Tribune at a Far South Side CPS elementary school in May. “This is just a new attempt for us to bring the focus to hopefully have a greater impact.”
C3 says Lollapalooza generated more than $305 million in local economic impact last year and nearly $2 billion since 2010. The Park District is entitled to a portion of admission, sponsorship and food revenue and is guaranteed to receive at least $2 million annually from C3. Lemons could not immediately say how much C3 paid the Park District for last year’s festival.
When the Lollapalooza agreement was announced in 2012, after months of private negotiations, it was heralded as a “big win” for Chicago’s taxpayers, hotels, restaurants, cultural community and parks, but the Park District also came under fire for not soliciting public input from the music community or consulting City Council.
The expansion of the festival from three to four days in 2016 also flew under the public radar. C3 announced the additional day in December 2015. The contract amendment allowing the expansion became effective in July 2015, but it’s unclear when it was signed. The copy provided to the Tribune via a public records request was not dated. The Park District did not redact the signatures on the document.
Lollapalooza was not held in person in 2020 because of the pandemic, but it returned full force last year amid concerns about the delta variant of COVID-19. Lightfoot and other city officials faced much criticism for going forward with the event, but they later concluded there was “no evidence” it was a “superspreader.”
Chicago is not requiring patrons of any festival to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative coronavirus test as it did last year. C3 and the city are asking Lollapalooza ticket holders to stay home if they don’t feel well. A spokesman for the city health department says it “continues to strongly urge everyone to wear masks in indoor public settings and stay up to date on COVID-19 vaccines including all recommended boosters.”
It’s unclear if the pandemic will be mentioned in the next Lollapalooza contract and how it will cover public safety in the wake of mass shootings at large-scale events over the last few years. The Park District has denied Tribune attempts to obtain recent emergency plans for Lollapalooza, though it has provided the newspaper this information about other Chicago music festivals.
Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, said he hasn’t heard any operational complaints about Lollapalooza related to safety or security.
“Where they might have room for improvement is park restoration, flood management systems and infrastructure. I think Lollapalooza could solve the perennial problems related to destroyed fields and banged up infrastructure by having Lolla assist with the cost of putting in a permanent wastewater and flood management system,” Reilly said.
He added: “What happens is it rains, the fields are used, they turn to mud, and the general public can’t use it for two to three months while the sod is taking hold. You can make a permanent investment in that area of Grant Park, and you’d be able to eliminate hundreds of thousands of dollars of remedial repair.”
The current Lollapalooza contract calls for the Park District and C3 to “develop a long-term strategy to enhance drainage at the venue.”
C3 pays to restore the park after the festival each year and has pledged some additional help. Late last month at a meeting Ald. King held with Tim “Tuba” Smith, C3′s festival director for Lollapalooza, and Juliet Azimi, the Park District’s chief administrative officer, Smith promised C3 would pay for the resurfacing of Grant Park’s tennis courts, where organizers park vehicles during the festival.
King’s constituents were far more peeved by noise. Julie Ranahan, who lives close to the park, dubbed the annual event “Loudapalooza” and said she’d measured the volume of past festivals from inside her home.
“It’s 87 decibels in my living room,” she said.
Others said they leave town every Lollapalooza weekend and complained about festivalgoers using alleyways as bathrooms.
A bench-mark decibel level is among community requests King has fielded. Organizers say they have moved stages and speakers to lessen the impact on nearby residents, but King argues, “there should be some type of compliance with noise at a certain level.” She said she has not heard back from Park District officials about whether that is possible.
The current contract grants the Park District “disapproval rights” over the decibel level of sound at the festival, rights it can exercise only after consultation with C3.
“I think that residents just want to be heard and for the fairly small request that they have to be taken seriously,” King said. She’d like the city to consider a limit on the total number of festivals held in Grant Park, arguing the city’s “front yard” is hosting too often.
“The NASCAR announcement put the community at odds with an event before it even had a chance to get off the ground, because of the lack of communication and transparency,” she said.
There are some incentives to keeping residents happy. Riot Fest was kicked out of Humboldt Park years ago because of neighbor complaints, and now that festival and others held in Douglass Park find themselves the subject of residents’ ire.
C3, meanwhile, has been presenting itself as a model citizen. The company announced last summer it’s providing $2.2 million to expand arts education at 200-plus Chicago schools over five years. Fifty schools — mostly on the South Side — were selected for the inaugural wave of programming, which is said to range from art therapy workshops to songwriting instruction to guitar skill-building.
CPS officials celebrated the partnership in late May at West Pullman’s Johnnie Colemon Elementary Academy, where students performed dances they learned from the nonprofit Forward Momentum Chicago.
“We wanted to make a multiyear commitment to a specific project,” Beliveau, of C3, told the Tribune.
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Nicole Upton — executive director of the arts education nonprofit Ingenuity, which distributes the funding with CPS — said some programs began in the spring while others will start in the fall. The number of schools added to the initiative in any given year depends on the number of applications received.
Poe Classical School is slated to host a 30-week Chicago Children’s Choir residency in the coming school year. Two choirs will rehearse once a week during the school day, which a spokesman for the children’s choir said is a “crucial time to get in front of students with these energizing and affirming music education programs.” It’s been at least a decade since the choir partnered with the Roseland school, the spokesman said.
Also on the South Side, a job fair was held in April for opportunities at Lollapalooza and another Grant Park event, Sueños Music Festival. A C3 representative said about 250 people attended the fair, which was geared toward City Colleges of Chicago students and designed to reduce barriers to the music and festival industries.
Chicago high schoolers, meanwhile, created graphic designs and murals that are slated to be featured at Lollapalooza. C3 hosted an immersion event last year, where After School Matters participants went behind the scenes of the festival to meet industry professionals. The partnership was expanded this year to include the artwork component. C3 is said to have shelled out for the stipends paid to the 60 After School Matters teens who pitched in on the project and gifted them free Lollapalooza passes.
“I think that it has just been a once-in-a-lifetime — hopefully not a once-in-a-lifetime — opportunity for the teens to really experience firsthand client relationships and partnerships. It’s been very exciting to see the excitement in the teens and the work that they’re doing, but also the excitement (from) C3,” said Lisa Caraballo, manager of program supports for After School Matters.