• Alex Nitkin
    OCT 01, 2021

    DCASE set for ‘transformative’ comeback, but aldermen want more input on events

    Taste of Chicago, one of the signature events organized by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, is set to return in 2022 after being canceled two consecutive years. [Facebook/Taste of Chicago]

    A parade of aldermen on Thursday rapped Comm. Mark Kelly, the outgoing head of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, for leaving them out of discussions on events being planned in their ward.

    A lack of communication to ward offices was a recurring theme in the department’s more than two-hour budget session on Thursday, as Kelly mapped out a plan for the department to come roaring back from pandemic-era budget hacks — including with a gush of new money for neighborhood-based public art projects.

    The cultural affairs department was one of the worst casualties of last year’s 2021 “pandemic budget,” as the Hotel Occupancy Taxes that feed its programs dried up, Kelly said Thursday. The department’s spending was slashed by nearly half last year — but it is set next year to gain back the dozen full-time staff positions it lost.

    Related: Aldermen probe DCASE budget that nixes funding for Taste of Chicago, Air and Water Show

    Budget officials have also proposed boosting the department’s Corporate Fund allocation by about $9 million. But Ald. Raymond Lopez (15) argued on Thursday that the city should widen its core spending pipeline to the arts and culture, saying the department’s revenue should “not be so dependent on a very shaky tourism industry.” 

    “We need you to be back to where you used to be, because you’re the draw that brings people to this city that helps us make money,” Lopez said. “So what is the game plan to fund your department…so that you can continue to be the draw that we need?”

    Kelly said the department should be in solid shape to regrow its programming, particularly as it expects Hotel Occupancy Tax revenues to bounce back to $19 million next year. 

    “I’m confident that we’re good for this year,” Kelly said. “I didn’t have that confidence last year.”

    Thanks in part to an infusion of funds from the American Rescue Plan, the department plans to boost its annual budget for locally targeted Cultural Grants — a boost Kelly called “transformative.” 

    “That’s a huge increase, and that’s all grants going out to artists, community organizations and neighborhoods,” Kelly said. “It takes us from something we couldn’t be proud of to being one of the leaders in the country in terms of cultural resources.”

    Aldermen demand more say in event planning

    More than a half-dozen aldermen complained to Kelly Thursday of events that the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events approved in their wards without telling the local alderman first. They included Ald. Walter Burnett (27), who said a recent music festival near the United Center conflicted with church services across the street.

    “If the alderman was involved, I would have coordinated with the reverend, I would have made sure the church would have had access to get to their parking lot,” Burnett said. “If you communicate with us ahead of time, we know where all the bodies are buried…and what to look for ahead of time.”

    I think you need to re-look at that, because…at the end of the day, somebody's going to get the blame, and I'm not taking blame for stuff that I'm not involved with,” Burnett added.

    He was echoed by budget committee chair Ald. Pat Dowell (3), who said special events staffers “need to be more collaborative about how you organize events in our ward, so we don’t find out about it last-minute.”

    Dowell and Ald. Sophia King (4) this month introduced an ordinance (O2021-4151) that would require the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events to score permission from local aldermen before issuing parade permits. The two Near South Side aldermen also introduced an order (Or2021-251) calling on the cultural affairs department to require the Chicago Park District to give notice to city departments and local aldermen before approving special event permits.

    King added her voice to the chorus of complaints on Thursday.

    “I feel like communication just kind of collapsed, this year particularly,” she said.

    Kelly repeatedly committed to boost communication to ward offices so that “you’re not surprised by anything and are receiving information directly.”

    Thursday was Kelly’s last budget hearing as the leader of the department. He plans to retire on Oct. 29 after five years as commissioner. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has yet to name her choice for his successor.

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