Rock and Roll and restoration: Strange Great Lakes bedfellows

Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson


Can 30,000 Parrot-heads cohabitate with nature on Chicago’s Northerly Island? Should the federal government help make that natural experience happen?

Northerly Island as recently as 10 years ago was home to an airport. It’s now a nature area and rock concert venue. The two don’t mix you may say, but in Chicago they do courtesy of the federal government’s — taxpayer funded — Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Regular readers may remember my commentary from last August where I criticized the Army Corps of Engineers for using $2.8 million to essentially turn a big portion of Northerly Island into an eco-tourist site. It’s a nice project but has nothing to do with restoring the Great Lakes, which was the purpose of the source of the money.

Northerly Island is in a tourist area of the city, is already in a natural state and is home to an 8,000 seat rock concert facility. Adding a lagoon with a sunken ship for divers makes the area not a restoration project, but someone’s pet project. That was my conclusion last year.

End of story, right? Well no, this is Chicago, the city of big egos.

With the $2.8 million U.S. taxpayer restoration money firmly designated for the Army Corps to spiff up Northerly, the Chicago Park District announced this spring that the 8,000 capacity rock concert venue is expanding to 30,000 for six to eight concerts each year featuring acts like Jimmy Buffett, Phish and similar big names.

This makes the venue one of the biggest in country, according to Jim DeRogatis, who covers the business and politics of Chicago music for Chicago Public Radio. DeRogatis is looking at how the Chicago Park District awards contracts for the Northerly Island rock facility and he has many questions.

But here’s what troubles me: The increase in the size of the concert venue will double the revenue to $2 million annually for the Chicago Park District. That’s just shy of what U.S. taxpayers are shelling out for the lagoon and other nature-in-the-city amenities. And that’s in year one.

How come taxpayers are footing the bill for a project of dubious environmental restoration value when the Park District is getting a huge revenue boost from the expanded venue?

Questions jump off the pagechicagoview

When the Army Corps’ Northerly Island project was announced last August, did the Park District and the Corps know about the concert expansion?

With additional concert revenue in the pipeline, should the Park District be hitting up U.S. taxpayers for millions of dollars? In this era of budget constraints and debates, is it right for the federal restoration initiative to provide it?

The responses are parsed and vague.

The Park District says the increase in the size of the concert venue was in the master plan for Northerly which means it was known when the Army Corp funded project.

The Army Corps acknowledged it knew about the new rock venue but said it didn’t have details.

Neither the Chicago Park District nor the Army Corps responded to my question about the propriety of using scarce federal money for a project that could have been funded by revenue from the concerts.

But maybe the federal money wasn’t scarce at all. It appears some of it was lying around waiting to be used.

In a press release last August, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the Army Corps was “utilizing unused 2012 funds from various Great Lakes Restoration Initiative projects and offered the salvage to the Chicago Park District.”

The Great Lakes community has been arguing for years that there isn’t enough federal restoration money for the work that needs to be done. Now the Mayor of Chicago makes it seem like there are millions waiting to be “salvaged” by a do good agency like the Army Corps.

And why should Chicago be a candidate for “salvaged” federal money anyway? It brags about being a big tourist destination drawing 43 million visitors annually that generate $725 million in annual tax revenue. Surely a tiny slice of that could be used for a touristy destination like Northerly Island.

Northerly project doesn’t match EPA priorities

In 2012 the USEPA narrowed the scope of its restoration initiative saying it would focus on three areas:

  • Cleaning up Areas of Concern — the legacy post-industrial polluted sites,
  • Reducing nutrients entering the lakes that cause algae blooms and,
  • Preventing the introduction of new invasive species. Asian carp are the prime challenge.

The Northerly Island project doesn’t come close to meshing with any of those priorities. But hey, maybe they don’t apply to Chicago.

These shenanigans are worthy of scrutiny, but there are bigger issues in play.

First, where was the oversight?

When the restoration initiative was launched in 2010 it spanned 11 federal agencies and questions were raised about the potential dilution of its effectiveness. Could it become an agency stimulus program, one concerned citizen asked at a public event I attended. The questioner was assured that since the money flowed through the USEPA — the project overseer — only restoration worthy projects would receive funding.

When I asked the EPA last year about the Northerly project a spokesman said once the money is transferred to another agency EPA doesn’t monitor its use.

What about the Great Lakes environmental groups? Shouldn’t they be on the lookout for frivolous restoration spending? Their primary mission is to lobby for federal money for the lakes and wouldn’t they want it spent on serious problem areas?

Jordan Lubetkin elected to take a global perspective responding, “connecting people to the lakes … is vitally important if we are to maintain support for restoration efforts now and generations to come.”

Lubetkin is the media relations representative for the Great Lakes Healing Our Waters coalition of conservation groups.

And there is no sign of the Chicago environmental groups who have a reputation for treading lightly around anything the city does, no matter how egregious.

More importantly, spending money on projects like Northerly Island means it’s money not spent on degraded sites with pressing problems — sites in less economically advantaged areas than Chicago’s tourist venues.

The Grand Calumet River south of Chicago is one of the most polluted sites in the region, if not the country. Why not find a way to channel the “salvaged” money there? The Detroit River and western Lake Erie are other regions that could benefit environmentally and economically from a few extra million restoration dollars.

If the Army Corps of Engineers and Chicago Park District want to spruce up Northerly Island to bolster tourism and increase access to a natural setting, fine. Just don’t call it Great Lakes restoration.

And don’t ask taxpayers in Buffalo, Grand Rapids, Toledo or Milwaukee to pay for it.

3 thoughts on “Rock and Roll and restoration: Strange Great Lakes bedfellows

  1. Good article Gary. I’m afraid we not only have foxes guarding the hen house, it seems they can order more chickens at our expence.

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