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The Three Rivers Festival Raft Race puts paddlers in a variety of homemade watercrafts in competition on the St. Marys River.

What's new at this year's Three Rivers Festival?

Whether you come for the concerts, the rides or funnel cakes, the 46th annual Three Rivers Festival kicks off today with new additions that make the festival even more accessible to the community.

With a team of sponsors backing the event, executive director Jack Hammer says the festival is able to bring in bigger acts for reasonable prices and offer new ticket options.

“It's not about how much money you have, it's about coming down and having a good time. When the streets are lined with little kids with flags in their hands, waving at me as I go by because I'm a guy in a golf cart, that's the coolest thing in the world,” he says.

“I believe in the city, I have pride in where I live and the people here. I just want to make it a little bit better and if I can make it better for nine days, I'm good with that.”

The festival runs through July 19; for the full schedule of events or to buy tickets, go to www.threeriversfestival.org or call 426-5556.

Focus on the rivers

What: River excursions

When: 4 to 9 p.m. today, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday

The Lutheran Health Network Parade at 9:45 a.m. Saturday will set the tone for the festival's theme of “Reflecting On Our Rivers,” and the idea carries on with the new free river excursions this weekend only. Passengers will depart from the pier in Headwaters Park West for 30-minute pontoon rides as they learn about the river's history and new possibilities. The tours run through Sunday.

The Hotel Fitness Raft Race also returns July 19 after being revived last year; Hammer says the race will offer $14,000 in prizes.

“The city is asking people, ‘What do you want on the rivers?' and the best way to do it is get people out on the river,” Hammer says. “So the city is partnering with us, Steel Dynamics, NewsChannel 15 and Hanning & Bean to get people out there. We have a chance to put about 4,000 people on the river during 2 1/2 days. We want to teach people about our rivers and help them dream a little bit.”

Hot dogs

What: Coney Island 100th anniversary hot dog eating contest

When: Noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, Hanning & Bean Event Plaza at Headwaters Park

The Choka family and partner James Todoran celebrate 100 years of business at the Main Street eatery. The 10 contestants were selected through the preliminary contests last month at Deer Park Irish Pub, and for final-round competition, the contestants will have 10 minutes to eat 10 fully dressed coney dogs as quickly as possible. Hammer says the event was something he and former owner Russ Choka spoke about before Choka died in 2011.

“When Kathy (Choka) and Jimmy took over, this is one of things where we said, ‘OK. We want to do this,' ” Hammer says. “After the parade, we're inviting people to come down, and we're going to see how many hot dogs the contestants can eat.”

Concerts

Who: Cheap Trick and “Under the Sun” tour featuring Sugar Ray, Smash Mouth, Blues Traveler and Uncle Kracker

When: Today and Saturday; gates open at 6 p.m. at Headwaters Park

The festival's concert lineup starts with Cheap Trick tonight, the “Under the Sun” tour with Sugar Ray, Smash Mouth, Blues Traveler and Uncle Kracker on Saturday, and Star 88.3's Music stage featuring For King and Country on Sunday. Admission prices are capped at $25 this year. Hammer points to the festival's sponsors as to how the festival is able to keep performances affordable.

“Being a community event, we try to hold our prices down,” Hammer says. “If you were going to see Cheap Trick anywhere else, you'd pay $35 to $45 for a ticket.”

Another option for music fans is the festival's new Mega Music pass, which covers all nine shows for $45. The shows included are the Waiter-Waitress contest and concert, which has been moved to a new 6 p.m. time slot; the Indiana band Brother for $2 Tuesday; and the Michael Jackson tribute band Who's Bad?

Seniors

What: Young-At-Heart Senior Day

When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Grand Wayne Center, 120 W. Jefferson Blvd.

The event for the 60-plus active crowd has gone through some new configurations, offering games, live swing music and free lunch and refreshments while supplies last, but Hammer says it's still a work in progress.

“We are trying to make this event about an active lifestyle. When they started doing this event, it was called ‘Fun over 50.' I'm 53 years old. I don't consider myself as old. I work, my wife says I act like a 12-year-old most days,” Hammer quips.

“We want it to be more than that, because this is a very large segment of our society, and we have found that most seniors don't want to be called seniors.”

Lunch

What: Lunch trolley

When: 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. today and July 14-18

For those planning a quick run to Food Alley during the week, there will be a free trolley with eight downtown stops this year. During lunch hours, the trolley will stop at the corner of Main and Calhoun streets, Berry and Harrison streets, Harrison Street and Washington Boulevard, Jefferson Boulevard and Parkview Field, Lincoln Financial Group and Douglas Street, One Summit Square and Calhoun and Berry streets.

“What we found is that people from downtown want to come and eat, but by the time they find a place to park or hoof it all the way down in July, it didn't leave much time,” Hammer says. “People will be able to get on the trolley for free, come down, enjoy their lunch and make it back to work.”

kcarr@jg.net

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