Naperville mayoral candidates pondering future of Ribfest, events in town

  • The traveling rib vendors that come each year to the Exchange Club of Naperville's Ribfest will set up shop somewhere other than Knoch Park in 2020.

    The traveling rib vendors that come each year to the Exchange Club of Naperville's Ribfest will set up shop somewhere other than Knoch Park in 2020. Daily Herald file photo July 2017

Updated 1/7/2019 6:22 PM

An iconic Naperville event could be leaving after its "Last Nights at Knoch" this Fourth of July weekend, and the potential departure of Ribfest has the city's mayoral candidates thinking about the future of festivals in town.

Mayor Steve Chirico said he's confident that if Ribfest organizers choose a site outside Naperville in 2020 -- the first year when Knoch Park no longer will be available because of renovations and field work planned at the site -- another group soon will step up to plan a new Fourth of July tradition.


But mayoral candidate Richard "Rocky" Caylor, who is challenging Chirico's bid for re-election, said he's hearing from residents worried about what it would mean for Naperville to lose one of the festivals for which the city has become known.

"People are all concerned, 'Why is it leaving?' 'Why aren't we doing anything?' And I don't know those answers," Caylor said. "The big talk is, 'Why should we let Romeoville or Bolingbrook take our Ribfest?'"

The first question is who gets to call Ribfest "ours," as the festival does not belong to the Naperville city government.

It is planned by a service club called the Exchange Club of Naperville, which has put on the event since 1988 and has used it to raise more than $16 million for charities that work to end child abuse and domestic violence.

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Ribfest always has been held on Naperville Park District land; its first year was at Rotary Hill, and all 30 years since then have been at Knoch Park.

The city's role is to approve plans for parking, street closures, traffic, and police and fire services to ensure the event runs smoothly. Chirico said this has involved working to find "acceptable" compromises to solve problems with noise, trash and parking encountered by nearby residents, ambulance access issues for Edward Hospital and parking concerns raised by downtown businesses.

But the decision of where to locate the festival after its run in Knoch Park must conclude following this summer's event lies with the Exchange Club.

Club leaders say they're working on securing a new 2020 location by this spring. About 10 sites are in consideration, including the DuPage County fairgrounds in Wheaton, and sites in Bolingbrook, Oswego and Romeoville.


"We are working diligently looking at additional sites," said Rick Grimes, the Exchange Club's executive director. "Certainly the publicity that was provided by your paper and others has brought some communities into contention. There's been a lot of outreach to us, so that's nice."

When people want to blame the loss of Ribfest on the mayor or city council, Caylor said he defends the city's leaders, as the decision not to allow it in Knoch Park after 2019 did not rest with them.

Leaders at the Naperville Park District made that choice, Executive Director Ray McGury said last month, to allow for additions to the fields at the district's largest central park and to free up more time for baseball and softball games and other activities.

McGury said plans for the park include the relocation and reconstruction of a Naperville Central High School softball field beginning this summer and work toward ideas of constructing a synthetic turf field, installing pickleball courts and adding to the system of walking trails.

Chirico said Ribfest has been so successful in Naperville that it has outgrown the space available at Knoch. He said he understands why the park district needs the festival to move so it can fulfill its mission of providing recreation and sports opportunities.

"It's too bad because it's a tradition. It's something I go to every year. I love it and it's something I enjoy immensely," Chirico said about Ribfest. "It'd be sad to see it go because it's been a part of who we are. But sometimes it just happens that way."

Ribfest 2019 is scheduled for July 3-6 in Knoch Park as usual at 724 S. West St.

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