Last weekend, Chicago hosted its 11th iteration of Riot Fest. The annual festival, which was founded in the Windy City, started as a punk-, ska-, and hardcore-focused affair that bounced around exclusively indoor Chicago venues. Since its modest beginnings, Riot Fest has swelled to a colossal event that attracts unthinkably high-caliber acts from a scattershot of genres and eras, elicits enough interest to now necessitate Denver and Toronto editions, and must be held outdoors to accommodate the sheer volume of performers and attendees.
While the exponential growth and rampant increase in popularity is a great thing for Riot Fest, its misguided three-year stint at Chicago’s Humboldt Park and last weekend’s sloppy inaugural Douglas Park attempt presently finds the festival’s host-site status mired in uncertainty, criticism and fines from within its home city, and mud—lots of mud. As Riot Fest sustains estimated six-digit repair fees and watches its goodwill dissipate in the city that no longer seems to want it, perhaps one last change of venue is in order. Believe it or not, Milwaukee makes a lot of sense. Before writing this off as another misplaced attempt to “put Milwaukee on the map” or a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to match Chicago’s notoriety, first consider the various reasons our city has the makings of an ideal Riot Fest surrogate city, and how much of a boon it would be if the “City Of Festivals” added one more to its crown.
In 2014, which was Riot Fest’s third and final year at Humboldt Park, founder Mike Petryshyn and Sean McKeough absorbed $182,000 in repairs. Even after paying to have the park cleaned and re-sodded, 26th district alderman Roberto Maldonado withdrew his support from the event this May, citing concerns and complaints from residents in his district. With fewer than four months to find a new home, Petryshyn says he was prepared to bring Riot Fest to the suburbs (probably frequent Warped Tour host, Tinley Park) before 12th district alderman George Cardenas and 1st district alderman Joe Moreno convinced him to keep the event in the city, eventually landing at Douglas Park on Chicago’s south side. In response, nearby St. Anthony Hospital sued its new three-day neighbor for $158,000, alleging noise and street congestion would disrupt the hospital during those three September days. The suit was settled out of court under less-than-amicable terms within a week of the fest’s first night.
The show went on and, by most accounts, it was great. From September 11-13, close to 140 acts entertained an estimated 150,000 festival-goers who were on hand to see massive dynasty bands like Faith No More, Iggy Pop, Modest Mouse, No Doubt, Rancid, and Drive Like Jehu; uncharacteristic Riot Fest bookings like Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Billy Idol, Doomtree, Tenacious D, Merle Haggard, and Anthrax; and beloved veterans like The Lawrence Arms, Alkaline Trio, Against Me!, Andrew W.K., and L7. Even Milwaukee’s own Direct Hit! was part of the incredible lineup. Though things went off without any disasters or major incidents, rain and the high-volume turnout, again, did a number on the grass. It’s estimated that Petryshyn and McKeough are reportedly on the hook for another $100,000-plus in repairs, and they once again find their concert subjected to criticism from residents, not to mention more than a few festers whose shoes were ruined in the quagmire.
Though born and raised in Chicago, Riot Fest could thrive in Milwaukee—and specifically at Henry Maier Festival Park—for these reasons.
Milwaukee has handled events of Riot Fest’s magnitude before, and does so every year
As noted above, Chicago’s installment of Riot Fest brings approximately 150,000 people through the gates over the course of three days. Basic math indicates that’s an average of 50,000 people daily. To frame those attendance figures locally, this year’s historically low Summerfest attendance of 772,652 people over 11 days still brought higher daily averages (70,241) to the grounds. The daily average for Summerfest in 2014 was 77,450. In essence, Riot Fest’s average daily turnout is equivalent to a somewhat strong weekday during the Big Gig’s worst attended year in recent memory.
That said, it’s hard to argue that parts of Milwaukee aren’t a shitshow for the entirety of Summerfest’s 11-day run. It’s debatable whether the city is capable of handling something that brings enough people to account for about 14 percent of the Wisconsin’s population (usually more) coming through the gates in a week and a half’s time. Yet somehow, it’s accomplished year in and year out, and the benefits it brings to the local and regional economy are both inarguable and staggering. Again, with Riot Fest’s average daily turnout about 70 percent of Summerfest’s 2015 daily average (and with eight fewer days to deal with it), Milwaukee’s ability to sustain the influx of people shouldn’t be a problem, if prepared.
Riot Fest has never been held at better site than Henry Maier Festival Park
The best way for Riot Fest to do away with fines associated with replacing grass is to eliminate grass from the equation altogether. The vast majority of the Mair Festival Park is paved, which (as last year taught us) is conducive to high-traffic in both rain and shine. Mud and pavement factors aside, there are countless other reasons this proposed site would be better than Douglas Park, Humboldt Park, and any of the previous indoor sites Riot Fest has used in Chicago.
This year, Douglas Park featured seven stages. Including the Northwestern Mutual Children’s Stage (which could host lesser-known Riot Fest acts during the day), the Maier has 11 stages that are capable of handling acts and audiences of all sizes. In terms of amenities, Riot Fest relied entirely on Port-o-Johns for its restroom facilities, and had temporary tented areas for its food and retail vendors. A cursory glance at the most recent Summerfest grounds map shows 11 permanent full-size restrooms, not to mention the presence of Port-o-Johns. Additionally, there’s no shortage of permanent restaurant kiosks, covered beverage stands, emergency/comfort facilities, as well as on-site benches and bleachers. It’s also worth mentioning the stages are covered and they don’t need to be assembled and taken apart after each event, unlike those at Riot Fest.
Most people who go to Riot Fest don’t live in Chicago
Petryshyn told Chicago Tribune that 60 percent of people who go to Chicago’s Riot Fest don’t live in the city. While it can be assumed that much of that percentage hails from elsewhere in Illinois or nearby western Indiana and Michigan, there’s probably a respectable portion of festival-goers who make the short, simple drive down I-94 from Milwaukee and other parts of Wisconsin. Yes, a considerable portion of that 40 percent Chicago base likely wouldn’t make the 90-minute pilgrimage north if Riot Fest moved, but Milwaukee residents (and Wisconsin residents in general) who have been unwilling to do the same to this point would surely fill in a noticeable portion of that attendance gap. The drive from Minneapolis is also 90 minutes and 26.5 miles shorter to Milwaukee than it is to Chicago, which is worth noting.
Milwaukee is less expensive than Chicago
Yes, there’s probably more to “do” in the Second City, but if your plan is to attend a festival all day or weekend long, having a hockey team, world class improv, an aquarium, and a reflective metallic bean doesn’t really mean dick. Even those who come from out of town will experience cheaper lodging, less expensive transportation, along with more affordable food and drinks. In that same breath, though, Milwaukee has far fewer hotels—and far fewer downtown hotels, at that—than Chicago does, as well as a considerably worse public transportation system. Hopefully, like Summerfest, businesses would offer shuttle service, but, admittedly, shuttle support would be questionable early on. And realistically, performers’ journeys to Milwaukee’s inferior airport would add an additional transfer, more time, and extra cost to the trip.
Milwaukee wants Riot Fest, even if it doesn’t realize it yet
In a different Chicago Tribune article published days before the latest Riot Fest, spokesperson Chris Mather claimed the three-day event “will bring 1,000 jobs for local residents, millions of dollars to the city and ‘the ability to attract visitors to a part of the city that does not often attract such tourism.’” With all due respect to Indian Summer Festival, which usually occupies the Summerfest grounds the second weekend of September, Riot Fest would be an economic opportunity Milwaukee couldn’t and shouldn’t pass up if it’s offered. In fact, the city should actively pursue the possibility of making it happen, however faint that possibility may be.
Riot Fest’s current Chicago arrangement, or lack thereof, has the burgeoning punk rock celebration quite literally and figuratively stuck in the mud. Milwaukee, the self-annointed “City Of Festivals,” can pull it out. Yes, it’s a long shot, but it’s worth exploring.