Ribfest hopes new 2020 location can improve parking, layout
Ribfest organizers with the Exchange Club of Naperville say they've heard an expected mix of reactions since announcing this week the need to find a new home outside of Knoch Park -- and possibly Naperville -- for the popular fest in 2020.
Because of planned renovations to Knoch, the festival's home since its second year in 1989, 2019 will be the last year the Fourth of July weekend celebration takes place there. Organizers are dubbing it the "Last Nights at Knoch."
As Naperville residents absorb the news, chief among their concerns has been whether the club will continue to support the long list of primarily Naperville-based nonprofits to which it donates funds, said Mary Howenstine, Exchange Club administrator.
The answer, she says, is yes.
Ribfest's purpose is to raise money for groups that work to end child abuse and domestic violence, and Howenstine said that won't change, no matter the location.
"The Exchange Club is of Naperville, and the commitment to the current allocation recipients is extremely strong," Howenstine said. "The club, as volunteer as it is, they'll figure out the relocation. But the commitment has always been to fund agencies, and that's going to be the priority."
Howenstine said responses from some people surprised by the upcoming move have criticized the 31-year-old festival for becoming too big. On social media, some Naperville residents have questioned why the fest can't move to another large park in Naperville, while others have said they won't miss the parking tie-ups it causes.
Naperville Park District offered Rotary Hill as an alternative when officials told club members this July about the need to move to allow park renovations, Executive Director Ray McGury said. But Rick Grimes, the Exchange Club's executive director, said the hill along the Riverwalk -- where the first Ribfest took place in 1988 -- is too small and likely won't work.
Other Naperville open spaces, such as Commissioners Park, Frontier Sports Complex and Nike Sports Complex, aren't on the table, either, because the park district needs the facilities to host a variety of sports, McGury said.
The district already faces scheduling challenges from allowing Knoch Park to be used for the fest, because it must stop booking activities there in June to allow setup. McGury said the district can't afford to tie up another major park instead.
"All we'd be doing is displacing a problem with scheduling," McGury said.
Ribfest planners say they understand.
"In all fairness, that was abundantly clear from last summer that those were not options for us," Howenstine said about Naperville's other large parks. "We knew right away. There have been no games played. They were completely transparent."
As Exchange Club leaders search for a new location for Ribfest -- looking primarily at large parks and fairgrounds in nearby communities -- they are hopeful the move can bring some improvements, especially to the festival layout.
While the Knoch Park site is large, at least 14 acres, Grimes said some of the ball fields and features take up space that can't be used for stages, food tents or carnival rides. And since 2010, when the festival expanded to use portions of the park both north and south of Martin Avenue, Howenstine said attendees have dealt with a bottleneck at the thin connection between the two.
Parking also is something the Exchange Club hopes to upgrade as it prepares for Ribfest at a new site in 2020.
The club for years has encouraged attendees to park in remote places such as North Central College, the Naperville Metra station, Neuqua Valley High School or Naperville North High School, and then ride a shuttle. Howenstine said she advises people to allow an hour from when they park to when they hope to arrive at Ribfest, just to be safe.
"We don't have enough close-in parking for people who just want to park their cars and walk in," Howenstine said. "So certainly, that's on our wish list: more close-in parking, strictly for convenience of our patrons."
It's a busy time for the roughly 140 members of the Exchange Club of Naperville, who also are planning the 2019 event, set for July 3-6. With the theme "Last Nights at Knoch," the club has booked three headliners, all representing different genres and all new artists to the fest. Howenstine said the club anticipates announcing the headliners in January.
"The entertainment committee searched for acts," she said, "knowing that we wanted to go out with a really strong lineup."