Raleigh hopes for bigger impact as July 4 festival moves downtown

New Independence Day festival spotlights downtown’s food and art scene

mgarfield@newsobserver.comJuly 1, 2012 

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Fireworks light up the sky after the Early Countdown and Acorn drop at & 7p.m during the annual First Night Raleigh celebration as seen from the Ferris Wheel on Fayetteville Street on Saturday night December 31, 2011 in Raleigh, N.C. The Fourth of July fireworks will be downtown this year, at 9:40 p.m. on the south end of Fayetteville Street in front of the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com

  • Festival at a glance •  Festivities on the Capitol grounds from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. include music, historical and military displays, tours of the Capitol and a children’s parade to a replica of the Liberty Bell on Bicentennial Plaza. A wreath-laying and naturalization ceremony for 30 new U.S. citizens is at noon. •  At 3:30 p.m., the action shifts to two downtown stages – one at Morgan and Fayetteville streets and the other at City Plaza – for six hours of music. The 82nd Airborne Division’s All American Free Fall Team will make a dramatic landing in City Plaza at 8 p.m. The big finale is a fireworks display at 9:40 p.m. on the south end of Fayetteville Street in front of the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts. •  For a complete lineup, visit raleighconvention.com/works.

— From watermelon-seed spitting contests to a naturalization ceremony for 30 new U.S. citizens, an eclectic lineup highlights Raleigh’s Fourth of July celebration on Wednesday.

Just make sure to come to the right place. The event, now dubbed “The ’Works!” moves downtown this year, marking the first time since Jimmy Carter was president that the State Fairgrounds has not served as host.

By relocating the festival to Fayetteville Street and inviting restaurants, bars and local artists to take part in the all-day production, the city hopes to offer visitors more flavor – along with more reasons to open their wallets.

A year ago, budget cuts prompted the cancelation of Raleigh Wide Open, a popular street festival that began in 2006 to celebrate the refurbishment of Fayetteville Street.

“We were looking for an opportunity to do another major downtown event,” City Manager Russell Allen said. “This seemed to match up.”

On Wednesday, the only lights at the fairgrounds will come from flashing roadside signs that tell visitors to go downtown if they want to see the fireworks.

Fairgrounds officials weren’t upset by the move, said Wesley Wyatt, manager of the N.C. State Fair Division. The city paid for the fireworks, but since the 1970s, the state has provided tables, staging and use of buildings.

“They thought it was in their best interests to move it downtown, and I can understand that,” Wyatt said. “It’s their event.”

Festivals have played a prominent role in downtown’s renaissance over the past decade, drawing thousands for events like Winterfest, First Night and Hopscotch, a weekend of live music.

Mid-summer was an empty spot on the calendar, said Michael Lowder, executive director of Artsplosure.

“It’s always one of the biggest vacation weeks of the year,” Lowder said of the Fourth of July. “But there are still thousands of people in town looking for something to do.”

Restaurants that might normally draw light crowds on July 4 will lure festival-goers with fare ranging from barbecue to sushi.

Yes, sushi. Sono has always been open on the Fourth of July, but the downtown Japanese restaurant rarely saw much business.

During nearby festivals like Artsplosure, however, business comes close to doubling, said manager Lamar Mintor. That’s the hope for Wednesday, despite raw fish being a little different than the patriotic staples.

“We’re so excited about it being downtown,” Mintor said.

The move to downtown hasn’t created much demand for hotel rooms at the Sheraton Raleigh on Salisbury Street, said Kevin Johnson, the hotel’s director of sales. But the bar and restaurant might see some extra foot traffic, he said.

So far, only one guest has asked for a room overlooking the fireworks show.

“Maybe one day it’ll continue to get larger and larger and it’ll be like New Year’s Eve and we’ll sell out, but we’re not quite there yet,” Johnson said.

Staff writers Chelsea Kellner and Kelli Straka contributed to this report.

Garfield: 919-836-4952

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