After an absence of about 15 years, the raft race appears set for a return voyage during this year's Fort Wayne Newspapers Three Rivers Festival.
Traditionally one of the annual festival's most popular events, radio station WMEE-FM ended the raft race in 1998, citing the cost of insuring the event that attracted thousands of spectators to the banks of the St. Joseph River. But planning is underway to resume the event on the St. Marys River near Swinney Park during this year's festival, which will run from July 12 through July 20.
“We're hoping to have a press conference within the next two weeks,” said TRF Executive Director Jack Hammer, declining to discuss specifics until all details are finalized. He did say, however, that a sponsor has been found and that “this will be an amazing, wonderful thing beyond my wildest dreams. We want to do this right.”
Police Chief Rusty York, who attended a raft race planning meeting Thursday, said he still has concerns about public safety, but Hammer said steps will be taken to ensure the safety of participants and spectators. “This is a litigious society,” he acknowledged.
Dan Wire, interim executive director of the Tri-State Watershed Alliance, said the public also needs to be assured that contact with the river is safe.
“We want to notch this (event) up from where it was,” Wire said, noting that the quality of the water has improved since the race ended. The construction of flood-controlling levies along the St. Joseph River made the previous location unsuitable, Wire added.
The return of the raft race now would be especially appropriate, Hammer said, given the city's renewed emphasis on riverfront development. City Council recently agreed to use $500,000 in “Legacy” funds to study the issue.
Hammer is not the first TRF director to envision the raft race's return. Shannon White had hoped to resume the event but resigned under pressure in 2008. Hammer, though, has long been an advocate of the city's three rivers, even broadcasting from the confluence during the festival as a radio personality.
The city's connection to its rivers did not end when the race did, however. The third annual IPFW RiverFest was held on the St. Joseph River last year, and Hammer was instrumental in the creation of the RiverGames, which was held for the second time on the St. Marys last July.
Even then, he was talking about his desire to restore the raft race.
“It's a great way to see parts of Fort Wayne you've never seen before,” he told The News-Sentinel. “These rivers are why this town is here. We need to make sure we have strong, fun river events good for the family and safe for everyone.”