Just one year removed from its 50th anniversary year, Three Rivers Festival has once again become the premier festival event in the Fort Wayne area.
While always important to the community calendar, the addition of festivals every other weekend of summer (not to mention ongoing debates about what events should still be part of the schedule) had put a slight crimp in the city's affection. But when Jack Hammer came on board in 2010, all of that began to change, and in recent years Hammer has brought back many of the lamented and departed events while bringing fresh life to everything from the music stage to the heritage events which are so beloved.
First and foremost, the focus of Three Rivers Festival is once again the rivers. While the official kickoff of the festival week has always been the Opening Day Parade, in recent years the fun has begun on Friday nights where there will be music (The Purple Xperience, a tribute to Prince), a car show (History on Wheels, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society) and one of those ways to enjoy the rivers.
"We will once again have our free river excursions, which we've done the last two years," says Hammer. "Last year we put more than 4,000 people on the rivers in two and a half days. Dan Wire runs that thing like a Disney ride, and the rides go out and come back in and another group heads out. People don't even seem to mind if they have to stand in line for an hour, an hour and a half because they enjoy the rides so much."
And then of course there's Saturday, when everything really takes off. With the parade starting at 9:45 in the morning, Hammer assures that the route, which can vary depending on downtown construction, is the same as last year. What isn't the same is one of the former traditions - scrubbed for safety reasons.
"We're no longer letting people pass things out at the parade," he says. "In the past there would be people who would pass out business cards, or they'd pass out candy to the kids. But we've had so many close calls with kids running out into the street and almost getting hurt, and while we know a lot of people liked those treats, we have to look at the big picture and make sure everyone is safe."
Since once again summer has visited Fort Wayne early, it's an easy bet that the day will be a toasty one, and for the adults who want something cold and frothy, craft beers will now be available at Headwaters East, which makes shopping at the Emporium sound like an even better idea. The day also features the return of the Midway, helicopter rides over the city and one of the most popular events of Festival, Art in the Park at Freimann Square.
"As always there will be artists from all over and the juried art show," says Hammer. "But this year we're also working with a new group, Heart of the City, and their focus is on local artists. So while we're still happy to bring in fine and unique artists from outside of Fort Wayne, there will also be a large presence of artists who may have other day jobs but still have great paintings, prints, photography to share."
With the weekend full of many traditions, the week will bring the return of several high-profile events. Monday sees the popular Waiter/Waitress Contest while Tuesday is the Young @ Heart Senior Fest at IPFW's International Ballroom, an event Hammer promises is more about staying active and healthy in the years after 50.
Tuesday night is the Luscious Legs Celebrity Contest, and Wednesday night at 6:30 on Main Street between Lafayette and Clinton is the fabled Bed Race. Wednesday is also Family Fun Day, and Hammer says they're now treating it as another way to encourage the participation of kids before the weekend's Children's Fest at IPFW. In addition to games, there will be prizes and giveaways, a fun day that doesn't cost families a lot of money.
And then there's Children's Fest, a wildly popular two days at the IPFW campus which has plenty of free activities and events. There will be food for sale, but the Friday-Saturday event is otherwise free and easy for families to enjoy. There's also a move toward adding fitness events for the kids.
"Parkview is our sponsor, and their CEO, Mike Packnett, kind of challenged me to find a way to spread their message a bit," says Hammer. "So we thought 'Let's have a fun run/walk event where the kids can have a good time, but maybe we plant the seed that exercise and moving [are] fun?' For a lot of kids it's about having a positive experience with it, so we have first-place signs around, and kids can get their picture taken, [giving] them a couple [of] good memories."
Also returning in the waning days of Three Rivers Festival is the International Village, this year held at the Club Soda parking lot, an event Hammer brought back after a long hiatus. His goal has been to bring the community together, which seems to be exactly what the Village is accomplishing.
"Every year we bring in 10 to 13 different countries, and while they have food from their cultures to share, we also ask them to have information, so it can be an educational thing, too. I think the more we learn about our neighbors, the closer we become and the more empathy we have for each other. It's a great way to make friends with people that you might otherwise just walk on by, and it's a great way to show the diversity in our area."
After grabbing some great ethnic food, you might consider stopping by Saturday's Brew Review, the fourth annual edition of which takes place at the plaza. Tickets will be $40 at the door ($10 for the designated driver) and includes food from Granite City and tickets to the Here Come the Mummies show that night.
As always, Saturday's events and the festival at large closes with the Fireworks Finale. While certainly his experience as director of TRF for the last eight festivals has changed a lot of things for Jack Hammer since his radio days at 98.9 The Bear, he admits that it's the big fireworks show that has given him a different perspective.
"I was one of those guys who used to go to the fireworks stores and buy $300-$500 in fireworks, and I'd sit in my front yard and shoot them off. But now that I have to write the check for that big fireworks show at the end of the festival, I don't spend that kind of money on my own fireworks anymore."