As the last days of summer creep closer to Riot Fest descending onto the front yards of west-siders, records the Reader reviewed help reveal where the infamous music festival’s money is spent: on permit fees, fines for damaging park grounds, and political donations to influential alderpersons.
According to contracts obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Chicago Park District, Riot Fest has paid an average of $248,000 in permit fees every year since moving to Douglass Park in 2015. It has also paid tens of thousands of dollars some years in “violations” for wear and tear sustained by the park during the festival, which brings about 45,000 daily visitors to the park during its three-day run.
At a park district board meeting on Wednesday, officials proposed amending park district code to require board approval on all future large-scale events of 10,000 people or more. This comes as Douglass Park residents continue to demand the removal of Riot Fest and other music festivals, which they say damage the park, limit public use, and disrupt hospital quiet zones.
According to the contract language, in 2015 and 2016 the park district initially charged Riot Fest flat fees of more than $2 million per year that were then reduced by “discounts” of about 90 percent. The records we obtained show that in 2015 Riot Fest only paid $233,508 of $2.35 million after the park district applied multiple discounts through an “approved partnership” and “approved agreement.”
A spokesperson for the Chicago Park District said the agreement discount, which is a negotiated rate, was “incorrectly identified” as a partnership discount in the 2015 Riot Fest contract and that no additional discounts were provided because of the clerical error.
The following year Riot Fest received discounts on permit fees through an “approved agreement” for a fee reduction of 91 percent. Records show Riot Fest paid just $212,079 of $2.4 million in permit fees in 2016.
The park district apparently changed how it structured event contracts after that. Riot Fest has not received a discount since 2016, but the district significantly reduced the upfront permit fees, according to the contracts. In 2017, the permit fee dropped to $225,000. Since then, fees have slightly increased each year.
A spokesperson for the Chicago Park District did not respond to questions about why the Riot Fest permit fees were reduced or why the fees were different each year.
The contracts also show that since 2015, the park district has charged Riot Fest tens of thousands of dollars in “violation or damage” fees. A spokesperson for the park district said such fees are for restoring park grounds that are torn up during the festival. The spokesperson did not respond to questions about why the district continued to approve permits for Riot Fest despite the repeated violations.
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According to special event permit applications, events like Riot Fest are required to pay their permit fees in full 30 days prior to the event, but payment for this year’s permit was not submitted until three days before the event, according to a spokesperson for the festival.
In a statement to the Reader, a Riot Fest representative said that the festival “paid all permit fees and repair costs that have been assessed over the years in full.”
Since moving to Douglass Park seven years ago, Riot Fest has been the target of complaints from residents who say the large music festivals commandeer the park and hardly invest into the surrounding communities.
“Douglass Park and the surrounding area in North Lawndale is already a community that has seen grave divestment for decades now,” said Anton Adkins, whose family has been living across the street from Douglass Park for over 50 years. “To have such festivals within our community that the community itself does not profit from, and benefit from in any way, is harmful to the people of North Lawndale.”
Now, with three large music festivals occupying Douglass Park including Riot Fest, Lyrical Lemonade’s Summer Smash, and Heatwave, residents lose public access to the park for a quarter of the summer, according to a Chicago Park District spokesperson.
“Nothing has been repaired in seven years,” said Denise Ferguson, a longtime resident of Douglass Park. “We didn’t get new sidewalks, we didn’t get new walking trails, we didn’t even get working bathrooms or access to drinking water in our park. None of that is there.”
Special events as large as Riot Fest are only eligible for a discount on permit fees if the host organization is a nonprofit or if 100 percent of the event proceeds solely benefit a nonprofit organization. Nonprofit organizations can receive at maximum a 75 percent discount on permit fees depending on annual income levels.
Riot Fest applied for a permit as a private company each year and never requested a nonprofit discount, according to the permit application submitted by independent contractor Scott Fisher, whose Special Event Services Group provided equipment for Riot Fest until recently.
In a statement to the Reader, a spokesperson for the park district said “fees for all large scale events permitted on Park District property are negotiated between the District and the event organizers based on a number of considerations including, size of event, event features and park location.”
Ticket sales for this year’s three-day festival range between $109.98 for a one-day general admission ticket to $1,999.98 for an “ultimate” three-day pass—a jump from 2018 ticket prices, when it was possible to buy a three-day ticket for less than $100.
With 45,000 daily attendees and ticket prices of hundreds to thousands of dollars, back-of-the-envelope math shows Riot Fest likely makes millions in ticket sales each year.
“Someone is making a lot of money and it’s benefiting someone, but none of that is coming back to us,” Ferguson said.
Over the years, Riot Fest has given tens of thousands of dollars to political action committees tied to Alderperson George Cardenas (12th) and former Alderperson Michael Scott Jr. (24th), whose wards include Douglass Park.
The 2015 and 2016 permit contracts include letters to the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events from Cardenas expressing support for the music festival. In recent years, community groups based in Pilsen have also written letters of support for Riot Fest including Economic Strategies Development Corporation (ESDC), ABC-Pilsen, and Ballet Folklórico Xochitl.
A handful of vendors contracted by Riot Fest also gave tens of thousands of dollars to PACs tied to Cardenas and Scott over the years.
All Around Amusement Inc., which provided carnival rides during the festival, has donated over $12,000 to PACs tied to Cardenas since 2010. Special Event Services Group has donated $2,000 to the committee Friends of George A. Cardenas. Technotrix Inc., which Cardenas mentioned in one of his letters, donated $1,000 to the committee.
In 2015, Riot Fest formed a charitable foundation with the purpose of promoting the arts while supporting causes “that effect positive change in our neighborhoods.” According to its 2015 tax returns available on ProPublica’s nonprofit database, the Riot Fest foundation donated less than $9,000 in concert tickets to local organizations and raised about $6,700 for school programs.
The park district proposal that would require board approval for large-scale events will be open to public feedback for 45 days.
“I hope that going forward, Douglass Park will see better days,” Adkins said.