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Fixing the Festival

Local event organizers weigh in on the Three Rivers Festival

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Mountain ranges may crumble into dust. Glaciers melt, the continents shift, civilizations rise, fall and rise again… and through it all, the question of what to do about Fort Wayne’s Three Rivers Festival remains.

That something needs to be “done” with the Three Rivers Festival seems to be a foregone conclusion in Fort Wayne. There’s a popular conception that the Three Rivers Festival is drying up, that it’s not bringing in the crowds like it used to. In truth, attendance isn’t all that bad. According to the Three Rivers Festival organization, attendance in 2005 was around 500,000, about the same as 2004, which was a little lower than the 2003, etc. But it’s still the second biggest event of its kind in Indiana.

But the perceived decline of the Three Rivers Festival may have less do to with attendance than it has to do with relevance. Started in 1969 to promote local business and celebrate Fort Wayne’s historical heritage, critics say that today’s Three Rivers Festival doesn’t really say “Fort Wayne” to any casual observer. Most vendors are from out of town, and the entire nine days seems centered on Headwaters Park. There are carnival rides that you could find anywhere, and the whole thing can cost a fortune, too. Newcomers to Fort Wayne wonder what all the fuss is about, while long-term residents remember how much better it used to be in the old days.

And perhaps it was. Last year, Gloria Diaz wrote a column about the Three Rivers Festivals she remembers from her youth. Festivals where brave souls on rafts lashed together out of junkyard debris traveled down the Saint Joseph, laughing in the face of salmonella and sunstroke, just like the pioneers (if the pioneers had been drunk and had made their rafts out of food packaging). Where any dreamer with a bed and a team of people to push that bed down a street could be a hero. Where great prizes could be had by anyone willing to jump into a swimming pool filled with jello. Where attendees from all over our tri-state area could marvel at culinary wonders like a 527’ hot dog or a 10’ diameter pretzel…

Yes, it was goofy in parts and (in some cases) an insurance and public health nightmare waiting to happen. Smart alecks might wonder what a bed race had to do with our historical heritage. Still, it was something unique, something that involved the whole community, and people showed up in droves.

With the Three Rivers Festival set to name a new Executive Director sometime soon, we thought we should talk to a few local people who have run events around town, and get their suggestions on what it would take to restore the Three Rivers Festival’s… magic? Luster? Glamour? They seem the wrong words for an event that annually highlights a chunk of fried dough dusted with sugar and cinnamon. We’ll just say: restore a sense of fun, excitement and uniqueness to what should be the centerpiece of any Fort Wayne summer.

Sal Soto, owner DeSoto Translation and Marketing, and organizer of Fiesta Fort Wayne and Latinos Count

“The Three Rivers Festival is Fort Wayne’s signature event, yet it’s done the same way every year. I understand that traditions are important, but I feel that the festival has gotten stuck in a rut. With Fiesta Fort Wayne, we go out of our way to try to something different each year. The Three Rivers Festival has been around a long time doing the same thing the same way.

I think the festival spreads itself too thin. There are all these events all over Fort Wayne. That might be nice for those other venues, but it really makes the festival look as though it’s not as big as it used to be. The downtown events seem to be lacking. There used to be the bed race and the ‘Show Us Your Tan’ contest – those were reminders that the festival was underway. When Three Rivers Festival happens now, I really don’t know it. Now we have RibFest, Germanfest and so many other events downtown – when I’m driving by downtown and I see the food vendors, I don’t necessarily know that they’re there for the Three Rivers Festival. The Three Rivers Festival food court looks like every other festival’s food court. A lot of the same vendors are out there. I get confused and think, ‘Whose party is this?’

Free concerts for all ages could bring people down to the festival at night. We used to go as a family to the free concerts. My parents would hang out and get food and the kids would go to the concerts.”

Carl Johnson, director of the Weisser Park Youth Center, and organizer of an annual Juneteenth Celebration

“The Three Rivers Festival used to showcase Fort Wayne. Years ago, I was in sales and marketing based out of Chicago and had northern Indiana as part of my territory. In Auburn, Elkhart and Michigan City – everywhere I went - people actively talked about coming to Fort Wayne for the Three Rivers Festival. It was a big deal. It was a community event and its appeal was widespread. It’s not as big of a deal now. I don’t hear anyone talking about it. Right now, they’re throwing an event and saying, “I hope people attend.” That’s my take on it. I think the festival has to be re-made, redesigned and re-marketed. Just like anything else, after awhile, things change. The nature of the game is that it has to be fresh.

The issue to me is how do you empower other segments of the community, particularly the African American community, to participate. That question has to be put on the table. The festival should be open to everyone and the organization should market and advertise to a segment of the population that spends a lot of money. I think the festival has to do some target marketing to get African Americans to participate. The festival also has to do something to reach out to youth. That means going out to individual youth centers to get them to participate. If you’re going to have a ‘youth night’ for example, you need to have a youth committee with participation from the YMCA, the Fort Wayne Urban League and anyone else who works with youth. At some point, the festival has to work with other organizations to create some level of excitement.

Safety is also an issue. I stopped letting my child go to the Midway (at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum). That’s purely a safety issue. I am not convinced that they have things under control out there. Last year, my child went and she called me and said, “Dad, come pick me up right away.” When I drive through there, I don’t think it’s safe.”

Irene Walters, executive director of IPFW’s University Relations and Communications, and organizer of the Mastadons On Parade project

“When I served on the board, I had seen the role of the Three Rivers Festival as being much larger than it is. I think it could be an umbrella organization to coordinate all the events to really bring people downtown on a continuous basis. I would love the Three Rivers Festival to be the organizer, so they could work with all the arts organizations,
with the convention and visitors bureau, with Germanfest, with all the different events and components to create a much more ongoing, lively draw for the downtown.

They would need support from the Downtown Improvement District, from the Mayor’s Office… but I think everybody needs to sit around the table to form a vision. A lot of cities do this, have an organization that is like the central office of events. I think that would just add so much to the vibrancy and vitality of downtown.”

Tom Smith 1st District City Council

“First of all, it’s too long. One complete weekend through another complete weekend. It’s hard to keep people’s attention for nine days. I don’t know what you do about that, because the bookends there are so great — the parade at the beginning and the fireworks at the end. But it just seems like by the time you get through the week, people are pooping out a little bit. There’s just not enough there, and when I say that, I mean there doesn’t seem to be enough really great, dynamic interesting things going on on some of those weekdays. A lot of very fine small things, but nothing that garner a lot of public attention.

The other things is diversity. It just seems like there’s nothing exciting. I mean really over the top exciting, like the Raft Race used to be, or the Bed Race. They seem to be pretty sedentary, stationary kinds of events, and they don’t seem to have a lot of excitement beyond some… I’ll say narrow interest beyond people who like that kind of event.

But mainly, I think it’s too long. Would it be possible to just take two days out of the middle and have nothing going on? (laughs) I can hear it know: ‘Oh, God, Smith, that’s idiotic! You have all those food vendors down there! What do they do?’ I don’t know. It just seems there’s so much time to fill up, and there aren’t the great events spread throughout the festival like there was in the past to sort of get you from one hump to the other, one day or two to the next.

It just seems the big things are concentrated on the weekends, and what goes on in the middle seems like oatmeal. I realize when I say that, that insults a lot of people who are doing very fine things throughout the festival. I don’t mean it that way. But there’s no great excitement to get people down there in big numbers. Particularly when you’re
trying to draw people in from out of town. If you’re going to draw people in from out of town during the weekdays, you’re going to need something big.”

Zenovia Pearson, Northwest Neighborhood Specialist and Citizen’s Advocate for the City of Fort Wayne, and founder/organizer of the International Festival

“I really think that the festival can be revived, but you have to come up with a new formula. What worked 20 years ago is not going to work today. Do they ever ask the community what people would like the festival to do? I think you need to do that. I would really try to figure out what the overall community wants.

When I was a kid, we used to love going to the Three Rivers Festival. You could walk through the crowds. You could ride your bicycle down there. There was always something to do. I think they used to have rides downtown. Everything was all in one place. I think that made a difference. What the Three Rivers Festival lacks for me right now is that there is nothing of interest to me as a Black person in the Fort Wayne community. They don’t have music that I want to listen to. The arts and crafts are a little too expensive for most people. And the food - you can’t eat too much of the food.

I’d love to see ‘Brown Bag’ music concerts at Freimann Square or at Headwaters Park at lunchtime during the festival. People could bring their lunch and sit and listen to music. You could also have entertainment for kids. It would give people a chance to mingle and give them an idea of what downtown is all about.

Bill Hausman Executive Director of the Three Rivers Festival, 1975 - 1988

“They’ve lost so many events since I was there. Some of them for good reason, because something like the Raft Race could not continue. The insurance was getting out of hand, even when I was there, but it’s got even worse since then. But then what they’ve done to the banks of the river, with all those rocks, the places where you could watch it aren’t there. Plus, I think the river is much more polluted now. I know I wouldn’t get in it.

I don’t have the answer, because so much has changed since I was there. It couldn’t be like it was then. But I still think that they should concentrate more on trying to get some new events, or bringing back some of the events they had before, because now it seems to be just a concentration on the beer tent and Headwaters Park.

The lead up to it is not getting the publicity and promotion that it did, which makes a difference.

We used to — and I hate to say “we used to,” because it sounds like sour grapes, but it really isn’t — we used to pride ourselves in that 90% of the events were free. You never had to pay to get into the beer tent. And now it seems like you have to pay for 90% of the events. That probably has something to do with the budget, but it still eliminates quite a few people from attending. Some of those bands they have in the tent… of course, I’m not a fan of some of that stuff, but we used to have a lot more variety. We had rock and jazz and country and polkas… Now, it just seems to be nothing but, what should I say, rock bands that had their day several years ago. We used a lot more local talent, and a lot of it was volunteer.”

Dan Turkette, American Spice Company, organizer of Spice Fest

“Kathleen Alter (former director) is a very dear friend of mine, and the Three Rivers Festival does a lot for my festival (Spice Fest). But I’m not going to pull any punches and I don’t expect you to make this sound rosy.

Just from my perspective, it’s no longer about Fort Wayne. When it was downtown, and Food Alley was downtown, and you could walk up and down Columbia Street and Barr Street, you actually got to go in and visit with the merchants. The entertainment was downtown, the beer tent was downtown, and it was all about Fort Wayne. People actually interacted with each other right in their working environment.

I think Headwaters Park is a fantastic thing for the city of Fort Wayne, but when the Three Rivers Festival was a downtown festival, it had much more charm, more of a lure for the locals. When Grabill has a fair, it’s downtown. When Auburn has a fair, it’s downtown. I think they need to re-address where they’re having it.

I used to live in St Louis. What’s the first thing you do when you move to St Louis? You go up on the arch. Great. Then your friends come there. They want to go up on the arch. Okay. But after three or four times, you say ‘listen, you go up in the arch. I’ll meet you at the bottom. I’ve been there, I’ve done that.’ The Three Rivers Festival has kind of become like the arch. Once you’ve seen it once or twice, there’s really no reason to go. Unlike the Johnny Appleseed Festival, which always has different things going on, the Three Rivers Festival is the same regurgitated thing year-after-year.

Then, I don’t know how the downtown merchants feel about that right now. How would they feel if the beer tent was back downtown on Columbia Street? A lot about that area has changed in the last 10 years. Maybe those merchants don’t want it. Maybe there’s some resistance there. But I kind of doubt it.

There’s nothing about the Three Rivers Festival that says ‘we’re celebrating Fort Wayne.’ I go to the 4-H Fair. To me, it’s more exciting. You can quote me on that.”

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