Jack Hammer built a life around – and in – festivals in Fort Wayne.
The 56-year-old city native marched in parades as part of the Three Rivers Festival, and members of his family also took part. He married his wife on July 14, 1984 – right in the middle of the festival – and the couple have celebrated their anniversary there.
“As I went through high school I was probably in 15 parades, never knowing someday I'd be the festival's executive director,” Hammer said.
He took over managing the annual celebration, which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, in 2010. While new faces show up every year, there are plenty of repeat visitors, Hammer said. And they bring stories with them.
“We ask people, 'What's your Three Rivers Festival story?' It's like, 'This is where we got married.' That's one of the great things we have found,” he said.
The comment is typical among those who organize and work with the city's many festivals. They say the events provide an opportunity for people to experience something new each year, but the festivals also include plenty of attractions to connect visitors with memories from the past.
“I think we have a community that loves these experiences,” said Kristen Guthrie, marketing director for Visit Fort Wayne. “They do a good job of keeping traditions and making improvements.”
The Three Rivers Festival is likely Fort Wayne's best-known annual celebration. The summer festival downtown has grown from a relatively small gathering organized by a handful of community members in 1969 to a weeklong (July 13 to 21) extravaganza of food, cultural celebrations and music.
That is hardly the only option for Fort Wayne festival-goers, however.
The Allen County Fair runs from July 24 to 29. BBQ Ribfest is June 14 to 17. Fort Wayne Pride Fest will be held July 27 and 28 at Headwaters Park.
Michelle Love, secretary of the county fair board, said the event draws visitors from the city as well as from rural areas and surrounding counties. Fairgoers like to see the animals and watch attractions like the demolition derby, but they also enjoy newer events – including races of motorized outhouses.
“We think it's a great addition to our community,” Love said of the fair. “It's really good, wholesome family fun.”
There's also Middle Waves Music Festival, a two-day event that will feature 30 performers on three stages at Headwaters on Sept. 14 and 15. The 44th annual Johnny Appleseed Festival will be Sept. 15 and 16, with food, historical demonstrations and a children's area.
All are popular, and each is an opportunity for people to visit Fort Wayne and for the city to market itself to visitors, Guthrie said. Visit Fort Wayne is a nonprofit agency that works to bring people to the city. Its website boasts nearly 6 million people visit each year and spend about $619 million.
The agency has not conducted a study to determine how much festivals net, but Guthrie said their effect is clear: Visitors to and residents of Fort Wayne enjoy the experiences, and the gatherings provide an economic boost to the city.
“There is always something special for (visitors) to add to their trip,” she said.
Finding that something special and providing it to visitors is key for Hammer, who said planning for the Three Rivers Festival continues year-round.
“We're doing something for the community,” he said. “We try to stick to that.”