Northcenter Summerfest Future In Jeopardy

By Paul Wilson | Friday, October 19, 2012

Hairbangers Ball crowd on N. Lincoln Ave. during Summerfest last August. Credit: Patty Wetli

Area residents could well see significant changes to North Side Summerfest in 2013–if the event returns at all, its organizers said this week.

The shape and fate of the festival, which took place Aug. 17-19 last summer on Lincoln Avenue in NorthCenter, will be decided sometime early next year, said Garrett FitzGerald, executive director of that neighborhood’s chamber. While Summerfest hasn’t been a bust in the past two years, it hasn’t been a rousing success either.

“The question is, do we think we can get this thing to make some real money down the road?” FitzGerald said. “You don’t start a festival to make money year 1, 2 or 3. You start a festival to make money in years 4, 5 and 6.”

FitzGerald estimated the chances that the festival would be canceled at about 10 percent, and the odds for a drastic overhaul around 50 percent, he said.

In 2012, Summerfest brought such performers as Wedding Banned, Too White Crew and 16 Candles to NorthCenter. The future of the festival is the question FitzGerald’s group, and its partner in organizing Summerfest, Star Events, plan to study. The chamber’s involvement only dates back two years, when the event was expanded and moved to Lincoln Avenue.

Attendance went from 15,000 in 2011 to 25,000-30,000 in 2012, FitzGerald said. But that pales in comparison to the older and more established Ribfest Chicago, another event the Chamber organizes, which draws 40,000 to 50,000 people each May to Lincoln Avenue.

Ribfest, held earlier in the year, faces less competition, but also has a clearer identity – which is said to be one key in drawing attendees.

“Six, seven years ago you could put some bands and kegs on the street” and be successful, FitzGerald said. “Now, because there’s so much competition, you need to be somewhat unique. We’re competing across the board for people’s entertainment dollars in a given weekend.”

That sentiment was echoed by John Barry, Star Events‘ chief executive. Barry founded Star Events in 1996 and organizes or co-organizes more than 20 street fests throughout the city. Where there were once a handful of events each year, there are now hundreds, he said.

“Now that every other street has a street fest, it’s a situation where the community can look at the schedule and say, ‘I don’t know if we should go this weekend. Let’s go next weekend,’” he said.

In addition to generating income for local organizations like the chamber, which can then be invested in the community, street fests ideally bring people to an area where they might later return to shop.

But the fests also mean street closures and other neighborhood inconvenience. Local business support or lack thereof for street fests usually varies depending on individual businesses, the fest itself and the neighborhood. Some other North Side fests this year have drawn criticism from neighborhood groups.

Isle of Man, 3856 N. Lincoln Ave., had a booth at Summerfest in 2011, but decided not to have one in 2012, said Cat Pham, the store’s manager. Pham appreciated that some customers in the past two years walked into the store from the festival, but she said she was “largely indifferent” to whether Summerfest returned.

“We enjoy festivals and we like when they’re here,” she said. “But we know that there are some (neighborhood) people who are put off by them.”

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