custer-fair-2011

Members of Evanston’s Economic Development Committee backed the idea of giving Custer Fair a break on city fees Wednesday night but complained about the food.

The panel voted in favor of a plan waive up to $10,000 of the city fees for the fair — which have totalled more than $14,000 a year.

The waiver, as described by Jennifer Lasik, the city’s cultural arts coordinator, would be a pilot for what could become a broader program of fee waivers for festivals and special events.

Lasik said the city support would be conditioned on the festival organizers being able to demonstrate the extent to which they promote economic development in the city’s business districts, employ Evanston residents and accomplish “creative place-making” goals.

Lasik said the Custer Fair, headed by John Szostek of Piccolo Theatre, has done probably the best job of any special event sponsor of demonstrating a strong economic impact.

John Szostek.

Szostek says the fair’s 70,000 visitors and 400 vendors spend an average of $1.7 million a year in Evanston during the fair, and that the event helps support the theater’s full time staff of six.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, complained that the weakest link at the fair is the food.

“If its not Asian mixed-up stuff on sticks, it’s fried,” Rainey said, although she added that everything about the fair west of the food booths on Chicago Avenue “is fabulous.”

She said she’d like to see the event turned into something like a “Taste of Evanston.”

Szostek said he’s working to try to get more Evanston restaurants involved in the event, but that health department rules make it difficult for vendors who aren’t set up to do festivals regularly to particpate.

“They have the freezers and holding equipment” that the health department requires, Szostek added.

He said he’d explored parking refrigerated trucks just off the festival site for other vendors, but health officials said they weren’t too keen about that kind of arrangement, because of the risk food might spoil even traveling a few hundred feet from the trucks to the booths.

“I understand,” Szostek said. “We want to be totally safe. But there are technical problems.”

He added that the fair has started adding food trucks — but that they tend to have limited storage capacity.

The Hummingbird Kitchen truck “ran out of food by 2 p.m. on Saturday, and by 1 p.m. on Sunday” at last year’s fair, Szostek added.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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