The President of the Grant Park Conservancy, which helps oversee the famous urban space that’s home to the annual Lollapalooza festival, says the Oct. 1 mass-shooting is always top of mind for him especially as he considers his own event’s vulnerabilities in the urban, high-rise environment.
What’s even more frightening is that shooter Stephen Paddock actually reserved two rooms at the nearby Blackstone Hotel overlooking Grant Park during all four days of Lollapalooza, but he never showed up. As part of Billboard and Amplify’s coverage of the six-month anniversary of Route 91, we conducted over a dozen interviews about the impact of the attack, but it was our discussion with O’Neill that stood out because of its honesty and candor. Below we present an edited version of that conversation.
What was your reaction when you first learned of the shooting and then later discovered the shooter had rented an apartment overlooking Grant Park?
It was horrifying and came on the heels of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando. These events are obviously very scary and I think one of the things that’s really egregious is they’re going after people who are having a good time enjoying themselves by creating chaos and carnage.
What was the significance of him booking a room at the Blackstone Hotel?
I don’t know how well he had researched what he was doing, but it seems like he was trying to get into a hotel room closest to the most massive area of Lollapalooza. I don’t know if he had calculated this, but during a weather event Lollapalooza is cleared, and when that happens, the street is literally wall-to-wall people. There are thousands of people crossing out right next to that hotel, funneled from the largest area of Grant Park.
Do you think the shooter realized that?
I’m not sure, but I quickly realized it and it’s horrifying to think he was positioned just a few feet away.
How do Route 91 and Lollapalooza compare in size?
From what I understand, Route 91 has about 22,000 people per day while Lollapalooza is 100,000 people a day, spread out over four days so that’s about 400,000 total on a 100-acre site. Route 91 is about 15 acres and is much smaller. Fortunately he never followed through with an attack on Lollapalooza but unfortunately, he did follow through in Las Vegas and it was a major wakeup call.
Why is Grant Park so important to Lollapalooza?
People love the location and the idea that they can walk around the park and see all these different bands and performers and walk around all this beautiful landscaping and being right downtown makes the event very accessible. Chicago is known for a lot of outdoor music festivals and Lollapalooza which is very secure and there really aren’t that many arrests or issues that happen.
Economically what does Lollapalooza mean for the city of Chicago?
It generates $200 million for the local economy and raises millions for Chicago parks. It’s a big charity event and we depend on it for getting trees planted and making improvements to Chicago parks. You also need to protect it because we need to protect human life and innocent people. That’s why we can’t let what happened at Route 91 go in vain — 58 people lost their lives in Las Vegas and hundreds more were hurt. Grant Park doesn’t just host Lollapalooza — when the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, we estimated 5 million came out to celebrate and they all converged on Grant Park. We’ve had a NATO conference here and the NFL Draft.
How are the hotels near Grant Park reacting to what happened in Las Vegas?
The Hilton has one of the largest hotels in the world near Grant Park, and there’s the Blackstone too. Those hotels are definitely taking that into account. And there were lapses in security in Las Vegas — hotels have to be secured and there’s a higher duty of care since people sleep there overnight. If you have diligent security, you can look at patterns of people bringing in extra luggage and items that look suspicious. The Blackstone could have been in a very bad position, but thankfully the shooter didn’t show up. You just never know what a lunatic like that is going to do. Sometimes their behavior is predictable, sometimes they have histories. And we have to learn from these acts. Otherwise, they turn an amazing festival of people having a wonderful time raising money for the city and the parks into an absolute disaster, and it has to be prevented.
How has Route 91 changed you?
The other day one of our board members was at the hotel overlooking Grant Park and she sent me this photograph of a large crowd gathered for St. Patrick’s Day. She was about 15 floors up, looking straight down at thousands of people. It felt very eery. I never thought something like Route 91 could happen. That’s why we’ve got to take security really seriously. Our event is four days long. That’s a lot of time to plot and plan.
Why do you think the shooter chose not to attack Lollapalooza?
I really don’t know, and the attack was only six months ago, but if he had tried to do something similar here in Chicago, I believe the Blackstone Hotel would have caught him. They have an incredible security team and are much smaller than the Mandalay Bay. But there is an interesting balance because you don’t want to restrict people’s movements. I love the idea that I can walk into the Blackstone and have a great time without people watching me. And it’s striking that balance by always having really good security during events like Lollapalooza, you heighten that security. It’s a small price to pay to prevent the carnage that happened in Las Vegas.