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Loop Alliance Credits Activate Alley Parties With Spurring $400K in Sales

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"FLOW/Im Fluss," a light and water installation by Luftwerk at last September's Activate event. Photo: Jennifer Catherine

Once again, the Chicago Loop Alliance is rolling out a full slate of placemaking initiatives in an effort to boost downtown retail and promote the arts. The centerpiece of the campaign is Activate, a series of pop-up art parties held in alleys, which the downtown chamber of commerce says led to hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional sales at local businesses. This year’s happenings will take place on May 15, June 12, July 30, August 27, September 18, and October 16 from 5-10 p.m., with specific locations announced the month before on the Activate website.

“We’re really pleased with how happy people are when they come to the Activate events,” said CLA director Michael Edwards. “They’re experiencing an urban environment in a different way, and they find a joy in that. And, of course, we love the fact that they’re spending money at local businesses.”

The alliance held six Activate parties last year at various loop alleys, centered around themes like fashion, surrealism, art installations featuring water and light, the street life of Manila, and other themes. In addition to visual art, the events featured DJs, live music, dance, performance art, and attendees who RSVPed in advance received a free drink. The budget for the series was about $105,000, mostly bankrolled via special service area funds, along with corporate donations and additional drink sales.

About 14,000 people attended the 2014 series. A CLA survey found that half of those who showed up were ages 25 to 34, with another 18 percent in the 35 to 44 bracket, and most of them live in Uptown, Lakeview, Logan Square, Wicker Park, Pilsen and, of course, downtown. Survey respondents said they spent an average of $35 each during their visits, mostly on post-event food and drinks, so the CLA calculates that the series pumped about $400,000 into the downtown economy.

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Cah-cha dancing at the Manila-themed event in Sullivan Alley last October. Photo: John Greenfield

The 2015 Activate program will be a little more ambitious, with a $120,000 budget, Edwards said. “We intend to use a couple of new spaces, but I can’t tell you which ones those are yet.” To further encourage downtown spending after the parties, the alliance is expanding its “Linger Longer” promotion, with local establishments offering discounts and coupons.

The CLA has also brought back The Gateway, a “People Plaza” located in the median of State, between Lake and Wacker. The café seating has already been reinstalled, including new, orange tables with a seat removed to make them more wheelchair accessible. “We’re also looking into adding more planters and other landscaping to soften the space and make it feel more like you’re inside a garden,” Edwards said. These new features may appear by June.

This year, the alliance will also bring back programming to activate Pritzker Park, the underused green space at State and Jackson. Once again, temporary seating will be provided during lunch hours, and the CLA hopes to bring food trucks, flower vendors, live music, yoga classes and other attractions.

The alliance had mixed success with last years #CitySeats program, which placed seating at 48 public spaces around the Loop for one day at each spot, and then promoted the locations via social media. “That might have been a little too spontaneous,” Edwards said. “People didn’t always notice the seats in time to use them.” The program will return in June, but the CLA may tweak the format by keeping the seating in place for a full week at each site.

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