Neighbors, council members ‘blindsided’ by Taste of Omaha’s return to Elmwood Park

The annual Taste of Omaha festival has been away from its traditional home on the Riverfront due to construction for the last three years.
Councilmembers and neighbors say they're "blindsided" by the Taste of Omaha's expected return to one of Omaha's oldest parks.
Published: Jan. 19, 2023 at 10:28 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Community members and Omaha city council members are frustrated after learning Omaha’s annual ‘Taste of Omaha’ festival will be returning to a busy and historic Omaha park.

The annual Taste of Omaha festival has been away from its traditional home on the Riverfront due to construction for the last three years. Instead, it’s been at Memorial Park.

“We welcomed Taste of Omaha the first couple years because we wanted to support the restaurant industry, and the mall downtown wasn’t complete and they needed a temporary place to be until the mall downtown was finished,” says Jim McGee, a resident of the Dundee-Memorial Park neighborhood for 40 years. He lives just a few blocks away from Elmwood Park and is a historian for the area.

Last year, the community was assured that 2022 would be the last time the festival would be held at the park.

“It’s actually a carnival midway, with rides and vendors and food trucks and that sort of thing, and it beats the heck out of the park,” McGee adds.

But Wednesday, the Dundee-Memorial Park Neighborhood Association was informed that the festival would be returning later this summer.

“We feel it’s time to put our feet down and object to any liquor license permit and try to be friendly about it and help them find another place to have the festival, it’s valuable to the restaurant industry but this is an inappropriate place to have it,” McGee argues.

“Our concern is just preserving our historical parks and protecting them because we’re working hard as a parks foundation to support the city in maintaining them,” says Tiffany Regan, the Executive Director of the Omaha Parks Foundation.

Regan says days-long festivals like these can have serious impacts on the land. Last year, major ruts and divots were left in the greenspaces thanks to a combination of rain and heavy equipment on the grass.

“They don’t understand what the manpower is to restore that, so our concern is the damage done short term but also long term, those root systems, we don’t know having that heavy equipment, or dumpsters, the long ones, what they’re doing to the tree roots underneath,” Regan adds.

And they aren’t the only ones surprised by the news of the festival’s return.

“This wasn’t even on my radar until I got blindsided yesterday,” says Omaha City Council Member Danny Begley.

Begley and McGee say the days-long festival, which requires several days of set up and take down, limits the public’s ability to freely use the popular park while it’s happening.

“The word was given to the parks foundation and the neighborhood folks that [2022] would be the last one, so when I found out yesterday, I was blindsided, it was between the Mayor and the parks director when that rolled out that’s when I found out about it,” Begley says.

Wednesday afternoon, Begley and Councilmember Festersen met with parks director Matt Kalcevich to explain their concerns and ask him to consider relocating the event.

After several meetings before the 2022 festival, Begley says the community, the parks foundation as well as himself reluctantly agreed to allow the festival in Elmwood for a third year, and for the event’s 25th Anniversary.

He says the event was better prepared for lessening its impact on the property, was well organized with parking and security, and was safer. However, Elmwood park would not have been his first pick for the event’s location.

“It’s a great event for Omaha, but Elmwood Park isn’t the only place it can be held, I think they can find somewhere else to do it,” Begley adds.

In a phone call with 6 News reporter Marlo Lundak on Thursday afternoon, parks Director Matt Kalcevich says when it comes to hosting the event at Elmwood, they now know what to expect, how to plan, and how to better mitigate the impact on the park’s land.

Kalcevich says they’re trying to be fair in the process for the promoter, but also have a long-term plan to keep Taste of Omaha out of Elmwood Park if it doesn’t return to the Riverfront following construction.

6 News also reached out to Taste of Omaha’s organizer, Mike Mancuso, but did not receive a response.