CITY HALL — Two prominent aldermen on Monday called the Great Chicago Fire Festival a "fiasco" and questioned how much public money was spent on it and whether the city is due some restitution.
Ald. Edward Burke (14th) referred to Saturday's event as the "fiasco on the river over the weekend" and questioned how much public money was spent on it during a meeting of the City Council Budget Committee.
Burke drew attention to two city contracts with Redmoon Theater, both worth $100,000, adding that "$200,000, at least, went to this taxpayer fiasco."
Other estimates were that the city committed $250,000 for the festival, but that Redmoon was seeking as much as $1 million total in public and private grants, and that the city might be on the hook for additional funding if that didn't fully come across.
On Monday, Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Michelle Boone confirmed the department paid Redmoon $350,000 over two years in planning, promoting and performing the fest.
Instead of full-scale constructions suggesting Victorian mansions bursting into flames that were planned for Saturday night, the fest produced only small fires, a result of problems brought on my inclement weather.
Lizzie Schiffman previewed what festival organizers hoped would happen:
"It fizzled," said Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), chairman of the Budget Committee. She too called it a "fiasco."
Yet Boone would not back down.
"Our investment was not just about Saturday's event," she said, adding that it reflected not seven minutes, but seven months of "public engagement."
Boone said she was on site from mid-afternoon Saturday, and "there was this great sense of community and activity," as well as other aligned events going on elsewhere in the city.
"The fireworks show alone was awesome," Boone said. "It was amazing to see the river lit up in that way."
Citing an estimated 30,000 people in attendance "eager to have a new way to experience the river," as well as a children's choir performing at the riverfront, Boone said, "That was damn cool."
Yet, asked if the city were due some restitution, Austin said, "Yes," adding, "It didn't come off."
Boone, however, said she expected this to be the first of what will become annual Great Chicago Fire Festivals, especially as Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Riverwalk project is completed, and that she hoped to continue working with Redmoon on it. She said she did not expect to push for Redmoon to refund some of the funding.
"I would hope that the city doesn't turn its back on creativity," Boone added, saying she thought it proved that "Chicago is a place where creative ideas can be explored and supported, and that has value."
Austin agreed, saying she'd support the Great Chicago Fire Festival going forward as an annual event to mark the Great Chicago Fire, which took place on Oct. 8, 1871. "Why wouldn't we?" Austin said in backing its continuation.
Asked why the event was a "fiasco," Burke, chairman of the council's Finance Committee, responded, "In the law, they say res ipsa loquitur," which translates as "the thing speaks for itself."
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