Each year as Fort Wayne anticipates the biggest week of a very busy festival season, the upcoming schedule – and changes to the schedule – of Three Rivers Festival is a source of intrigue. Which bands will play at Headwaters Park? What events will be changed or expanded? How many elephant ears and funnel cakes will every citizen be able to consume?

Some of those answers are now available. Junk Food Alley consumption is up to each and every one of us to resolve on our own.

Jack Hammer, popular radio personality turned executive director of Three Rivers Festival, has been building a bigger and better TRF during his tenure, bringing back the beloved raft race and, more surprisingly, turning it into a sober, family-friendly event. This year he’s taken another festival favorite, the Crafters Market, and turned it into a week-long extravaganza.

“We’ve turned Crafters Market into Marketplace, which is now a week-long shopping experience,” says Hammer. “I wanted to be able to offer a constant shopping experience for people attending the festival throughout the week, and Marketplace will be open from 11 until 11 each day. I find myself going to shop at the festival and seeing things that I didn’t know existed but suddenly needed to have immediately. So it was hard to say goodbye to Crafters Market, but Marketplace was something that I really thought we had to do to meet the needs of people attending the festival.”

Of course, like most of the traditional and beloved events of the Indiana calendar year, Three Rivers Festival is paying homage to the state’s bicentennial celebration, making it the theme for the Opening Day Parade on Saturday, July 9.

TRF commissioned local artist Terry Ratliff to design the cover of this year’s festival guide, another nod to the bicentennial celebration. Serving as the grand marshal at this year’s parade is Bob Chase, a man who has received national recognition recently and is as cherished as anyone in the city.

“Just to call Bob Chase to ask him to be our grand marshal was such a thrill for me,” says Hammer. “My uncle was a sales manager at WOWO for years, and he would take us into the station with him. And I would listen to Bob Chase when I was a kid on the beaches of Florida. So I was always a big fan, and I’m so happy that he’s going to be our grand marshal.”

In addition to the parade, many of the Three Rivers Festival favorites are returning. The Bed Race, one of TRF’s heritage events, zooms down the streets of downtown Fort Wayne on Wednesday, July 13. After a four-year winning streak, DeBrand’s had to yield the Bed Race crown to Salus Research, making this year’s event a little more interesting.

Of course, the popular Children’s Fest at IPFW returns on the final two days of the festival, July 15-16. While there are food and drinks available for purchase at Children’s Fest, everything else is completely free, making a big hit with families for many years. Rides, face-painting, interactive booths are just a few of the stops as the Fest takes over Fort Wayne’s largest campus. The Kids Fun Run, an 800-meter run, takes place on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., providing Parkview with a chance to encourage exercise for our youngsters.

Another classic TRF event brought back in recent years, International Village, may be Hammer’s favorite revival of his tenure. Although he doesn’t specifically say so, it’s clear his heart is very much with this event as something bigger and better than a chance to eat really great ethnic cuisine.

“International Village is taking place in the Club Soda lot this year, and there will be 12 countries represented. The food is great, but I really think it all serves a larger purpose. I’m very fortunate that since we brought back International Village, I know so many people of different cultures, people that I can call my friends now. I really think that it helps remind us that we’re all really in this together and that we need to love our brothers.”

If anything equals Hammer’s passion for people as displayed in International Village, it’s his love and appreciation for our rivers, something that was somewhat lost for a time. Despite being called the Three Rivers Festival, the rivers were somewhat lacking from the annual celebration in a move to nestle the events into the Headwaters pavilion and adjacent areas. While close to the rivers, many of the annual events were no longer directly on the rivers or paying tribute to them. A chance to learn more about our rivers up close and personal comes through 30-minute guided pontoon rides. This year’s rides can be taken July 8 (4-8 p.m.), July 9 (11 a.m.-8 p.m.) and July 10 (11 a.m.-5 p.m.). With 10 running boats, there’s a steady stream of departures and plenty opportunities to see the rivers. Since the excursions began in 2014, more than 4000 people have taken advantage of the rides.

“The rides depart from the Headwaters dock,” says Hammer. “These excursions have been very special because 95 percent of those riding have never been on our rivers before.”

Then there’s the Raft Race. Once one of the most popular sporting events in the state (some estimates put attendance second only to the Indianapolis 500), it had become a somewhat soggy affair. And the liquid wasn’t necessarily river water. With things getting slightly out of control, and the family-friendliness long gone, the race was suspended for several years. While previous directors did consider ways to reintroduce the much lamented race into the festival schedule, Hammer was the one who came up with a plan and made it happen. With cash prizes (this year totaling $12,000), the race is now a serious competition and open to even more participants through a program designed to get more people involved.

“This year we have built 25 rafts [for] people who want to be in the race but don’t have the tools or the truck to haul it. For $125, four people will get the raft, paddles and life jackets and can get involved and enjoy the race. It’s a great chance to get out with some friends and compete for the cash prizes. And these are all cash prizes.”

Many other returning events and programs – Luscious Legs, Art in the Park, trolley rides to the downtown area at lunch time – can be found in the TRF guide distributed with this issue of whatzup and also available online at whatzup.com.

In addition to many of the free events, this year there are ways to cut costs through the Admiral’s Access program. A new means of selling membership to the festival, a ticket sold for $195 provides more than $300 of value for a family of four. The package includes passes for music events, drink tickets and all-day ride passes. More information about Admiral’s Access and all of the TRF events is available at the TRF website.