James Beard Awards: Chicago tourism officials commit to raising $2M

Choose Chicago promises no public funds will be used; Mariano's, HMSHost already are sponsors

Chicago tourism officials have committed to raise nearly $2 million in sponsorships for the James Beard Foundation Awards, a pledge that helped lure the event, considered the Oscars of American dining, to Chicago in 2015 from New York.

In an announcement last week, officials from Choose Chicago, the city's tourism bureau, pledged that "not $1 of public money will be used for this event," to be held May 4 at the Civic Opera House.

The commitment to ink sponsors on the foundation's behalf was a factor in the city's success. Grocery chain Mariano's and food/retail concessionaire HMSHost have already pledged nearly $800,000.

"It's a very compelling opportunity for a small foundation like ours to be able to raise money to advance our programs," said Susan Ungaro, the president of the James Beard Foundation. "But the decision is not just about funding. We've been working toward moving to another city. Chicago just ended up being the best fit."

Choose Chicago spokeswoman Meghan Risch said Mariano's and HMSHost have signed letters of intent with the tourism bureau to sponsor the awards ceremony. Those letters are in the process of being converted into formal agreements that would direct the money to the Beard Foundation, Risch and Ungaro said.

Bethesda, Md.-based HMSHost, the largest food concessionaire at O'Hare International Airport, was the first to commit, Risch said.

Mariano's, meanwhile, is on track to open 16 locations this year in and around Chicago.

"For us, it's on strategy," said HMSHost Chief Executive Tom Fricke. "We're really trying to up the culinary content of what we offer around the country. ... Among our brand partners are 40 James Beard Award-winning chefs."

Fricke added that this was the first time the city or quasi-governmental group — Choose Chicago is a nonprofit — had personally approached him regarding assisting a Chicago civic effort. But he said he didn't know if his team had been approached with other requests.

Relying on private businesses to fund public initiatives is becoming standard fare in Chicago. The Chicago NATO host committee, for instance, raised nearly $33 million and had as much as $14.9 million left over after the three-day summit in 2012, which drew about 50 heads of state.

The Beard Awards, in comparison, last only one night. The foundation's journalism, book and broadcast awards will remain in New York in 2015. And no decision has been made about host cities beyond next year.

The Illinois Restaurant Association has been assisting Choose Chicago with identifying and pitching potential sponsors.

"HMSHost, they've been trying to reach out to the culinary community for quite a while," restaurant association President Sam Toia said. "They put Rick Bayless in O'Hare now. They're trying to be very good corporate citizens. They're trying to keep going after celebrity chefs. They see this as a way of trying to start relationships with more celebrity chefs."

S.F. makes its best and final offer

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has offered "Star Wars" creator George Lucas a prime lot near the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge for the film director's planned cultural arts museum, according to a letter from the mayor to Lucas.

The 2.3-acre site, known as Seawall Lot 330, will now compete against Chicago's offering: a 17-acre parcel, composed of a parking garage and parking lot, between Soldier Field and McCormick Place, the city's convention center.

Lee's letter describes the San Francisco site as "easily accessed by public transit and framed by views of the Bay Bridge and the City skyline. ... It is within walking distance of local and regional transit hubs, wind-protected, and enjoys sunshine an average of 300 days per year."

That last attribute is a not-so-subtle dig at Chicago's unpredictable weather.

Lee's letter also offers the option of combining Seawall Lot 330 with Piers 30-32, located across the Embarcadero, a street that runs along the water.

The NBA's Golden State Warriors had planned to build a new arena on the piers and a hotel and condos on the seawall lot but abandoned the idea in the face of community opposition and regulatory hurdles, including a federal environmental review that could have taken years.