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As River Fest marks its 15th year, neighborhood blossoms around it

The name – Buffalo River Fest – is the same. But things have changed for the 15th annual festival sponsored by the Valley Community Association this weekend.

The big change took place in 2011, when the hopeful name “River Fest” became a reality. That was the year the festival moved from the land-locked Father Conway Park to the new Buffalo River Fest Park on the Buffalo River.

In its first few years, the small, manicured park, known as “Peg’s Park” for its creator and driving force, Margaret “Peg” Overdorf, was an oasis in a sea of blight.

Last year, extensive road reconstruction on Ohio Street threatened the Valley Community Association’s opening concerts at the park.

This year, not only is the park easily accessible, but plans for apartments and offices create a vision of a thriving neighborhood replacing this once-blighted and abandoned industrial area.

“We started when nobody else was there,” Overdorf said. “There was nothing and no interest, people thought I was nuts, and that little park triggered everything you see on Ohio Street today. Nobody could even get near the river or see the river from land because there were piles of coal and industrial equipment, and you weren’t allowed in there.”

Overdorf’s plans for the park are not complete. People who attend this weekend’s festival, which kicks off at 6 p.m. Friday, will be able to see progress on the park’s final structure, which will hold a restaurant and banquet facility.

“The north wall will be complete so people can see it. It’s got beautiful brick detail on it,” said Overdorf. The roof line of the building, being called The Lodge, will mimic the double chimney of the old New York Central Freight House, which stood on the site. The building will also contain public restrooms for parkgoers, walkers and bicyclists, “the only public restrooms between the Inner and Outer Harbors,” she said.

She said the restaurant may have its soft opening as early as October, with a grand opening around St. Patrick’s Day.

Meanwhile, supporters of “Peg’s Park” gather this weekend at 249 Ohio St. to enjoy the festival and wonder what might surround the park when they gather again next June.

The festival runs from 6 p.m. to midnight Friday, 11 a.m. to midnight on Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

Live music will be provided by The Strangers on Friday, Getting Better and Flip Side on Saturday, and Only Humen on Sunday. Waterfront Memories and More Museum will set up displays from the Old First Ward, Valley, Times Beach and grain milling district. Dozens of local vendors will have booths, and food trucks and a beer tent will sell refreshments.

Bingo and children’s games, including inflatables and miniature golf, will be offered.

Saturday’s highlight is the Rigidized River Regatta, which starts at 11 a.m. A six-mile route for canoes and kayaks begins at Harlem and Clinton; a three-mile route for “Build Your Own Boat” contestants, as well as canoes, kayaks or stand-up paddle boards, will start from the pocket park at the foot of Smith Street.

Check-in starts at 10 a.m. at both sites; the entry fee is $30 per boat pre-sale ($35 the day of the event) for “Build Your Own” boats and $20 per boat pre-sale ($25 the day of the event) for kayaks, canoes and paddle boards. There will be awards for best-built and most creative boats. Shuttles will take participants back to their points of launch after the regatta ends.

Historic waterfront walking and shuttle tours will be led by historian Gene Overdorf at 6 p.m. Friday and noon on Saturday and Sunday, and a ride on the E.M. Cotter fireboat will depart at 6 p.m. Friday. A donation of $10 per person is requested for the tour and the fireboat ride and space is limited. To preregister for either, call Peg at 716-823-4707, Ext. 2.

Sunday’s highlight is the free Take Your Dad Fishing Contest from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Families with children under the age of 14 may compete for prizes. Anyone 14 and over will need a fishing license. Registration will begin at 10 a.m. Sunday.

“We’re trying to get a lot of water activities for the festival,” said Overdorf.

Proceeds from the Buffalo River Fest benefit the Valley Community Association, a nonprofit United Way agency that serves the residents of the Buffalo River Community, as well as the Buffalo River Fest Park.

Parking is free and is available at the Buffalo Creek Casino parking ramp and surrounding side streets. For more information on any Buffalo River Fest activities, visit thevalleycenter.com.

email: aneville@buffnews.com

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