- The Washington Times - Friday, November 26, 2004

CHICAGO (AP) — City officials hope there are people willing to pay plenty of money to own a vintage Playboy Bunny costume, toss green dye into the Chicago River or throw a dinner party prepared by Oprah Winfrey’s chef.

The Chicago-related items and experiences — Playboy Enterprises and Miss Winfrey’s show both are based in the city, and turning the Chicago River green for St. Patrick’s Day is a hallowed city tradition — will be up for sale Dec. 2-16 on EBay.

It’s all part of an effort to raise money for arts and cultural programs as the city faces a $220 million budget gap.

“It seems to be one of the most extensive, if not most extensive, [EBay auctions] of its kind,” said EBay spokesman Hani Durzy, although with 29 million items for sale at any one time, he said it’s hard to say.

Other cities and states have used EBay to sell surplus office furniture, and school districts have auctioned off entire buildings. Charities regularly use the auction site to sell only-in-your-dreams experiences such as a lunch date with stock market sage Warren Buffett, which sold for $250,100 last year.

But the Chicago sale is unique because the money is being directed back to specific city programs and the city is both contributing items and encouraging residents to donate, Mr. Durzy said.

Many of the items up for auction are specific to Chicago, including a decommissioned city parking meter, a walk-on role at the city’s Goodman Theatre, a chance to turn on the landmark Clarence Buckingham Memorial Fountain for the season, and a behind-the-scenes tour of Lincoln Park Zoo.

The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, which is sponsoring the auction, has seen its budget from federal, state and city sources decline from $11.8 million in 2002 to a projected $8.8 million next year, said department spokeswoman Anne Dattulo.

Proceeds will help groups including the Chicago Cultural Center Foundation, which presents free arts programs, and Cultural Grants, which awards funds to hundreds of Chicago artists and arts organizations each year.

City officials have not estimated how much they expect to raise from the auction. A conservative guess is $250,000 just for the items for which there are actually estimated retail prices, such as a stay in a hotel’s presidential suite, Miss Dattulo said.

But how much a bidder will pay for a one-of-a-kind opportunity like turning on Buckingham fountain, the centerpiece of lakefront Grant Park, is unknown.

Consultant Joan Greene, the auction’s project director, said she first saw it as a way to sell items donated by businesses, but soon realized there was also a way to create unique, Chicago experiences.

A city worker in the mayor’s office suggested the Chicago River project; Miss Greene said the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local Union 130, whose members dye the river each year, was excited to help out.

“What we have done is to create a picture album of what is available in the city. It’s become almost like a travel experience,” she said. “We’re raising funds, but also we’re helping people all over the world get a sense of what Chicago is about. I love that aspect of it.”

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