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As Street Fests Multiply, Organizers Ask: “Are There Too Many?”

By Paul Wilson | Monday, November 12, 2012

This year’s perfect weather drew a record crowd to the 2012 Retro on Roscoe. Credit: Mike Fourcher

When Rock Around the Block struggled in its rebirth in West Lakeview last June, one of its organizers acknowledged a reality of the current climate for Chicago street fests.

“These aren’t cash cows anymore,” John Barry, Star Events chief executive, told a group of concerned business owners shortly after the festival.

It was a quick comment at a June meeting, which focused on other problems with the festival, which included, by Barry’s own admission, poor communication with local businesses. But the comment reinforces what representatives from street fests across the North Side have said recently and what numbers from the city bear out:

The number of street festivals appears up substantially from five years ago–and even more so compared with 15 or 20 years ago. That means competition for festival attendees, and their dollars, has intensified, creating some soul-searching, complaints from area business owners and the possibility that at least one area festival will end.

That festival is North Side Summerfest, held in Northcenter in August, which will likely get a major facelift in 2013, if it returns at all, organizers told Center Square Journal in October. Last summer saw the festival’s second year along Lincoln Avenue. While the festival has not lost money in the past two years, it has not been a rousing success, either, its organizers said.

“The question is, do we think we can get this thing to make some real money down the road?” Garrett FitzGerald, executive director of that neighborhood’s chamber, which helps organize the event.

The stakes are high, to be sure, because many local organizations depend on proceeds from street fests for a good share of their operating income. Event organizers won’t divulge much detail about individual festival finances.

Still, hundreds of thousands of dollars hang in the balance, at least in some cases. For a bit of reference, Guidestar records show that Mayfest Chicago NFP, the Niles-based organization responsible for Mayfest each year, had revenues of $510,812 against expenses of $454,986 in 2010.

Guidestar records also show that United German-American Committee of the USA, Inc., which organizes German Day Fest (often called “Oktoberfest”), had $594,144 in revenue in 2010, compared with $496,884 in expenses, though it is unclear whether that revenue is totally fest-related.

Last August, the Retro on Roscoe festival, which is owned by the Roscoe Village Neighbors and managed by Star Events, brought in over $412,823 in revenue against $266,196 of expenses, according to organizers.

FitzGerald said his group gets 75 percent of its income from festivals, led by the more established RibFest Chicago, which dwarfs Summerfest in terms of attendance.

RibFest has the kind of formula that festival organizers say is key: A strong identity that pulls in attendees from across the city and beyond. Strong area foot traffic can be a boon for local businesses during the fest and afterward and can act as a salve for any businesses inconvenienced by street closures during the fest.

Without that kind of identity and with potential attendees pulled in more directions, festivals can struggle.

“I’ve done this for going on 20 years now in the city of Chicago,” Barry said in an interview. “Back in the day, when I first started, I think there were a couple dozen fests total.

“As the years have gone on, more and more nonprofits and groups see that they can be lucrative and have jumped into the street-fest game. Now that the pie can be divided 500 ways instead of 20 ways, it’s more difficult for that reason alone.”

It is hard to get exact city figures, going back to the 1990s, that support Barry’s statements. But numbers from the city since 2005 seem to back him up.

Seven years ago, there were 409 applications to the city in the category that includes street festivals (along with church picnics, school carnivals and some events that are larger than one neighborhood in scope) according to the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. That number increased to 670 in 2012, for a 64 percent increase.

Much of that increase is due to an uptick in sporting events. But even excluding that category from the total, applications increased 45 percent in the past seven years.

“I think in Chicago, now that every other street has a street fest…the community can look at the schedule and say, ‘I don’t know if we should go this weekend. Let’s go next weekend’,” Barry said.

Some bigger, non-neighborhood events, are struggling of late. Taste of Chicago, which was slimmed down in 2012 after large financial and attendance problems in 2011, continued to struggle in 2012. As recently as the the mid-2000s, it wasn’t uncommon for Taste to bring in $1 million to $2 million, according to reports.

But several organizers of neighborhood street fests disagree with Barry that festivals on different weekends compete with each other. They’re quicker to point to competition from non-street-fest events–everything from baseball games to the Chicago Air and Water Show to larger music festivals. Those events are typically more expensive to attend, which can mean less money for people who might attend local street fests, Barry said.

Regardless, offering something unique is crucial, those involved with street fests say. For festivals with a cultural bent, authenticity is extremely important, said Nicholle Dombrowski, executive director of DANK Haus, 4740 N. Western Ave.

DANK Haus is a vendor at MayFest each year in Lincoln Square and has a financial stake in the event that dates back to the early 2000s. Street-fest “saturation is enormous” across the city, which makes it harder to throw events that are financially worthwhile, Dombrowski said.

“Our return is not very impressive, income versus the expense is tight,” she said. “It’s a big expense to throw a festival and it’s all risking weather and attendance.”

Mayfest in Lincoln Square, traditionally kicks off Chicago’s street fest season. Credit: Mike Fourcher

In 2011, Dombrowski ran a workshop for the Chicago Cultural Alliance discussing the pros and cons of street festivals. She said she felt she “had to lay out the truth” for the attendees: Festivals can look like a panacea but they are extremely expensive undertakings, she said.

“You have to have that money backed up,” she said. “Let’s say you walk away with $70,000. You have to put $20,000 of that away, in case next year is terrible. And that’s hard for nonprofits to do.”

MayFest proceeds account for 12 percent of DANK Haus’s annual budget, Dombrowski said. That can lead to some frayed nerves in the days leading up to a festival. Cold weather and poor turnout on the day MayFest began this year caused Dombrowski to worry about the rest of the event, though the temperature improved over the weekend as did the return on DANK Haus’s investment.

Neighborhood buy-in for street fests is important, too, Dombrowski said. “I don’t want people to think we’re socking away millions of dollars by closing Lincoln Avenue, because we’re not,” she said.

Closing streets, particularly for a festival that’s not a resounding success, can annoy business owners. Guy Nickson, owner of Wishbone at 3300 N. Lincoln Ave. spoke to that in June at the community meeting discussing Rock Around the Block.

Ribfest Chicago has established a known brand for ribs and indie music. Pictured, the 2012 “Ribmania” rib eating contest. Credit: Donna Schultz

“We need to think why we are having these festivals and why we are closing these streets,” Nickson said at a meeting of the West Lakeview Neighbors. “What can we do to be original? The bloom is off the street festivals. I am not excited by Rock Around the Block. I would be for the festival if it promoted the neighborhood.”

Promoting the neighborhood was one of the goals of the rebooted Square Roots festival, said Melissa Flynn, executive director of the Lincoln Square-Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce. Amid the burgeoning street-fest scene in Chicago, Square Roots was a new addition in 2012.

Flynn’s group teamed with the Old Town School of Folk Music to move the event, which in previous years was held in Welles Park, to Lincoln Avenue between Montrose and Wilson. One of the main reasons for the move was to showcase the Old Town School’s new building, across the street from the old one on Lincoln Avenue, which opened last winter.

Flynn counts the event, which called itself the “first ever craft beer and music experience” in Lincoln Square, a success in its first year, both financially and as far as neighborhood support. That’s despite some admitted first-year rough edges, including a loud band playing early one morning for a local TV camera crew that disturbed some residents.

“Clearly, we won’t be doing that again,” Flynn said. “We really do our best to be a good neighbor.”

Some other changes will be in store for year two, Flynn said, including making better use of the parking lot next to the Bad Dog Tavern, 4535 N. Lincoln Ave. Still, Flynn said an estimated 25,000 people attended and that the chamber and the Old Town School were pleased with the first year results.

Attendance was down slightly from when the event had been held in the park, said Bau Graves, the Old Town School’s director. But Graves noted that net income from the event was up, even though it must now be shared with the chamber.

“We were quite pleased with the partnership,” he said. “Thousands of people came into our buildings, both the new one and the old one, some who had never been before. So we’re planning on doing [the partnership] again next year.”

Perhaps not surprisingly for someone who organized an event that added to an already busy city street-fest calendar, Flynn said she didn’t think that Chicago is near a tipping point street-fest wise, though she acknowledged the stiff competition.

“With a first-year event, you have to be prepared to lose your shirt and we fortunately didn’t do that,” she said. The event, “has momentum now, and we wanted to give the opportunity to local business on a larger scale than we had previously.”

Flynn and other event organizers agree that it takes about three years to know if an event is sustainable. FitzGerald of the Northcenter Chamber now has two years of data from North Side Summerfest, and he says attendance went from 15,000 in year one to about 25,000 this year. Determining whether the event will continue and what it will look like if it does is something his group and Barry’s Star Events will deliberate in the coming months.

“We’re fortunate that we haven’t really lost any money. We haven’t made any money either,” FitzGerald said. “I think six, seven years ago you could put some bands and kegs on the street” and be successful.

There are a handful of companies like Barry’s, like Big Buzz Idea Group and Special Events Management, that work with organizations like FitzGerald’s to organize events across the city. Barry said his company helps organize more than 20 in Chicago in 2012.

One change in recent years is that attendees are less likely to donate money to attend events, possibly because they’re more savvy to how street fests work than in years past. The attendees know that they can sidestep suggested donations and still attend, Barry said.

Several years ago, it was much easier to net $50,000 to $100,000 in income from a street fest, but now, “$100,000 is almost unheard of,” Barry said.

He predicts that we’ll see a drop in street fests in the coming years as events without strong draws get canceled because of a lack of attendance and revenue.

“I think it’s already happening,” Barry said. “The trend over the past year or two is that some of them just aren’t going to make it. And the big ones find their revenue declining.

“They’re too many [fests], and they cost so much to compete.”

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  • Marko from Tropoja

    I miss the Folk and Roots Fest in Welles Park; it was always the best festival of the Summer. Not only are there too many fest in Roscoe Village/North Center, there are too many block party permits given out. They’re great at bringing together neighbors, and I enjoy the one we have, but some blocks were shut down more than three times this Summer. It can make getting around on the weekends a real challenge.

    • http://www.facebook.com/owenputman Owen Putman

      I agree with block party comment. There are too many of them, and it makes street parking really difficult when there are 3 or 4 blocks in close proximity closed down.

  • http://twitter.com/FlyCasual FlyCasual

    For me, the biggest issue is that they’ve all become virtually indistinguishable from one another. From the horrible cover/tribute/ironic wedding bands to booth after booth of discount sunglasses, I just no longer see the draw. A note to the organizers: there are hundreds of wonderful local bands, independent stores, small restaurants/food trucks, etc. to tap into that could really highlight any given neighborhood’s community. THAT’S what these festivals should be, in my humble opinion. Not just a cookie cutter festival of mediocre music and Coors Light. Times have changed.

  • http://spudart.org/ spudart

    Wow. What kind of country do we live in when making $55,826 and $97,260 in profit is not enough?

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=526568263 David St Michael

    They kind of seem generic to me. Nothing special. And I REALLY hate the lack of flow in these things. Gross. Say, has anyone done any research on what makes for a successful street fair. In this internet age, it shouldn’t be too hard to do. Learn from the winners, I say.

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