…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
Not so Curious City

I recently asked WBEZ’s Curious City a question. (If you’re not familiar with the program, Curious City is part of Chicago Public Radio’s attempts to get more crowd-sourced reporting to cover for all the bloggers and other staff they recently axed.)

Photo credit: Chris Smith

I have always wanted to know who pays for the biweekly fireworks displays at Navy Pier. Why? Because I’m a public policy nerd. And not only are fireworks a notoriously expensive way to obliterate things, but Navy Pier is almost exclusively filled with out-of-towners, and I wanted to know if my tax dollars were going to pay for the tourist trap within a tourist trap that the fireworks seem to be. No offense; I’m just curious.

So, what’s the answer? Well, here’s the somewhat dissatisfying piece Curious City came up with. They basically said that this 501(c)(3) known as Navy Pier, Inc. pays for the biweekly events I was asking about, and that the Illinois Lottery paid $20,000 toward the Fourth of July fireworks this year. So, BEZ’s answer was that corporate sponsorship pays for the big holiday one, and some unnamed charitable donors pay for the other 99.9 percent of the displays.

But that’s not the whole story.

A quick Google search (plus the knowledge of what a 990 form is–thanks, j-school!) brought me to the 2011 IRS reporting from Navy Pier, Inc. Turns out that in their establishing year, Navy Pier, Inc. raised $500 in contributions. “Hmm, that’s not enough for a fireworks show!” you might think. But here’s where the magic comes in.

In field 1e of section VIII, you’ll see the group was given $2.7 million in government grants. Now, Navy Pier, Inc. raised much of their total revenue of more than $26 million from retail, parking and other commercial ventures. But $2.7 million in government grants is nothing to sneeze at. Just ask a Chicago Public Schools student; they can do the math.

Now, I’m too lazy to march down to the offices of Navy Pier, Inc. and demand their 2012 990 report (all 501(c)(3) organizations must make these forms available to the public, though are not required to post them on the web, obviously). So, I’m not pretending to write my own piece of investigative report, here.

But I was a little upset that WBEZ, which has some of the best radio reporting in the region, didn’t at least Google the 2011 990. Or, hey: Chicago Public Radio’s studios are in Navy Pier; they probably could have just strolled down hallway and asked. Or maybe they’re too understaffed.

1 Comment to “Not so Curious City”

  1. Shawn Allee says:

    Hi Meg,
    This is WBEZ’s Curious City editor Shawn Allee.
    Thanks for prodding us to get more reporting out on this. We’ve updated the story with more of the reporting we’d done last week, as well some more that Chelsi went back for after your post. Unfortunately, there’s not much to say other than it’s likely some public coin is in fact going up in smoke but we won’t be getting more precise with a figure.

    I wish you’d consider recasting your characterization of Curious City, as the following line is inaccurate in several ways:

    “If you’re not familiar with the program, Curious City is part of Chicago Public Radio’s attempts to get more crowd-sourced reporting to cover for all the bloggers and other staff they recently axed.”

    It’s unfortunate that you didn’t take the time to ask me or CC’s creator, Jennifer Brandel, about this before publication. Regardless, in the comment section of our post, I’ve explained what’s off base. If you or any of your readers have questions about Curious City or how we put stories together, please leave a message at my desk line and I’ll return your call as soon as I’m able.

    Yours,
    Shawn Allee
    312-948-4723