Ribfest won't be in Knoch Park in 2020. Will it even stay in Naperville?
Ribfest's run at its longtime home in Knoch Park -- and possibly even in Naperville -- appears about to end.
The annual July 4 weekend celebration is gearing up for what organizers say will be its final season next summer at the downtown-area park where it has spent the past 30 years and grown into one of the suburbs' largest festivals.
The first Ribfest, sponsored by the Exchange Club of Naperville, was held in 1988 at nearby Rotary Hill along the Riverwalk. But it moved to Knoch Park the following year to take advantage of the larger space.
Now the park district plans to redevelop the site and officials have told organizers they'll have to look elsewhere.
Exchange Club members say they haven't made a decision about where their fest -- which has raised more than $16 million for roughly 50 charities that work to end child abuse and domestic violence -- will be held in 2020.
Rick Grimes, the group's executive director, said members are looking into venues in other communities, possibly at a fairgrounds or a large park.
"We'll be looking at a slightly different Ribfest in 2020," Grimes said. "It will be a site change because it won't be at Knoch Park, but we're doing everything we can to have the same impact on the community."
Park district Executive Director Ray McGury said he met with the Exchange Club in July, once the 2018 event was cleaned up, to alert leaders to the development plans for Knoch Park and the need to relocate. The park is the district's main recreation area in the center of town, at 724 S. West St. near Naperville Central High School, Sportsman's Park and the Ron Ory Community Garden Plots.
"We tried to do a two-year runway to give them time. I know this is no easy task. I understand the angst that this does cause the club," McGury said. "I have nothing but admiration for the Exchange Club, Ribfest and what they do and the money they give out."
Plans for Knoch Park include adding a softball field for the Naperville Central High School varsity team; constructing a synthetic turf field for a variety of sports including soccer, lacrosse and flag football; installing courts for pickleball; and adding to the system of walking trails, potentially with fitness stations along the way.
McGury said only the plan to add a softball field is final, with construction expected to begin in summer 2019, after Ribfest clears the site for the last time. But the park district is working on drawings for the rest of the ideas and starting discussions with parties such as Naperville Unit District 203 and Edward Hospital.
Grimes said the notice from the park district was as upfront as possible after years of collaboration.
"It's been a wonderful run, and we've had great partners in the park district and the city of Naperville and Edward Hospital and the school district -- even the cemetery board," Grimes said, listing the properties that abut Knoch Park.
"The only way we've been able to achieve the success we've had is by having great partners."
Even with a new site in store for 2020, Ribfest plans to remain a Fourth of July weekend spectacular, offering traveling rib vendors, musical entertainment, a carnival and business booths, Grimes said.
"Wherever we are in 2020, we hope it can become a long-term home," he said. "Our idea is not to downsize things; our idea is not to necessarily grow things. But it's to transfer what we have and continue to grow the event to the benefit of the charitable institutions we support."
When the park district notified the club of its Knoch Park plans, McGury said officials offered Rotary Hill as an alternative. But Grimes said the hill "probably will not suit our needs."
So as organizers begin discussions with landholders in other communities, Grimes said they've also informed sponsors and vendors of the coming change.
"I am unaware of a single situation where a sponsor or a vendor said, 'Well, a change of venue means you can count me out,'" Grimes said. "They realize we'll be working just as hard for the same cause -- and their participation, their support of this event really has to do with that."
Ribfest 2019 is scheduled for July 3-6. Grimes said the club hopes to settle on its 2020 location before then, allowing more than a year to plan a major public event at the new site.
"Wherever they land, I'm going," McGury said. "We will always be a partner in any way they want us to be. I'm grateful for the partnership we've had for 31 years, and I'm glad that if it had to end, it's ending this way -- that we're both going our separate ways for the greater good of our organizations."
Ribfest highlights over the years1988: Ribfest launches at Rotary Hill over Father's Day weekend
1989: Ribfest moves to Knoch Park over Fourth of July weekend
1989-1997: Exchange Club of Naperville and Naperville Park District jointly plan the festival and fireworks
1998: Exchange Club of Naperville takes over full planning of Ribfest
1999: Ribfest's number of traveling rib vendors peaks at 22
2010: Ribfest expands from the north side of Knoch Park to both the north and south sides
2014: Ribfest hosts a Hispanic Day
2016: Ribfest donates $1.2 million in one year
2017: Ribfest unveils a mascot, Curly Hamilton, and launches a smartphone app
2018: Donations in 31 years total $16 million
July 2018: Naperville Park District notifies Exchange Club of Naperville of need to move Ribfest after 2019
2019: Final Ribfest in Knoch Park planned for July 3-6
2020: Ribfest to be planned for Fourth of July weekend at a new location