Celebrating its 45th year, the Fort Wayne Newspapers Three Rivers Festival starting today will bring eight days of events that balance the festival's more nostalgic aspects with those that draw in the millennial crowd.
Festival Executive Director Jack Hammer says with such a diverse community, it's a difficult job to please every demographic. He says this year's festival includes events such as the House4aHouse electronic dance party for the younger crowd, and the raft race, which is returning after a 15-year hiatus.
"It's a great community event," Hammer says. "All the festivals are great, but festivals, like the Germanfest, are a celebration of heritage. Three Rivers Festival is a celebration of who we are once we got here, and unpacked our bags – no matter where we came from. That's what this festival is about and has been for 45 years."
Hammer began coordinating the festival four years ago. Working in local TV and radio for 25 years, Hammer says he had been involved with the festival in other capacities before joining the staff 30 days before the festival in 2010.
"I came in, and I was fired up like I am now," Hammer says. "My parents enjoyed the Three Rivers Festival with me, and I have been able to enjoy it with my kids."
He says that requests for the return of the raft race influenced the festival board's decision to bring back the event. Cash prizes, provided by sponsors Hotel Fitness and Hanning & Bean Enterprises, will be given for the first time. The prizes total up to $14,000 with first-place racers winning $2,000.
Hammer says that the festival will also bring back the Luscious Legs contest featuring the "mystery celebrity's legs" of IPFW men's volleyball coach Arnie Ball, Deputy Mayor Mark Becker and Fort Wayne Komets hockey player Kaleigh Schrock.
Junk Food Alley, Downtown Midway, the International Village, the bed race and the finale fireworks are still major events included in this year's lineup. However, the festival's "Fun over 50" events will not return this year. Hammer says that the festival will take a year to clear the air and develop healthy and active events for seniors.
Hammer expects attendance to reach about 400,000 visitors this year – an increase from last year's attendance that saw a drop after the extreme heat from last summer's drought.
He says that the festival's Lutheran Health Network Parade on Saturday should draw from 40,000 to 60,000 people to the area.
The festival has partnered with northeast Indiana careers initiative organization Talent Made Here for this year's theme, "Made Here." The parade will feature products that were made in Fort Wayne, including the TV and the Bowmar hand-held calculator, as a symbol of what the community can develop.
"People expect a great parade. Originally, any parade in America meant that the circus was coming to town – something great was going to come that you usually didn't see, and that's what people expect out of the parade," Hammer says. "The committee works really hard to make it more about fun and less about 'buy this car.' "
This year's music offerings include rock bands Jackyl and Sevendust, Bloomington-born funk band the Main Squeeze and all-girl country band Mustang Sally. Christian rock bands MercyMe and Hawk Nelson will be headlining on the Star 88.3 stage.
For its second year, A Better Fort Organization will present their electronic dance music party House4aHouse as one of the opening events this evening. Proceeds benefit the Mad Anthony's Children's Hope House.
A Better Fort, who garnered national attention when they partnered with local rappers to produce the song "My City," will close off a block of Calhoun Street to host a lineup of local DJs.
Last year, Shane Araujo, the event's coordinator and co-founder of A Better Fort, was able to raise $5,000 for the charity with nearly 2,000 people in attendance.
"There are so many studies about this and, it's been proven, that a strong downtown helps a thriving city," Araujo says.
"I obviously want to raise money for the Hope House, but I want to promote downtown Fort Wayne and support the places that I go to. I want to show that when kids get together and do something positive, some real cool stuff can come from it."
Hammer says that for nearly 50 years the Three Rivers Festival has rode the wave of economic development.
He says the ongoing revitalization has made it cool to be downtown again, and the festival has fully embraced the changes.
This year's official festival button features the renovated Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge in the background.
"I want (residents) to have one more reason to love their city, to have pride in it," Hammer says. "When they tell other people about where they live, I want them to tell something unique about where they live, and I hope one of the first things that comes from their lips is this festival."