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Biggest Party | By Mike Ryan

It’s a three-fer for the Fayetteville Dogwood Festival. The event promises to pack in not just one headlining band this year but three free acts: .38 Special, Collective Soul and Ray J.

Did we mention free?

Every April, the award-winning festival engulfs the city with art displays, performances, plus everything from a charity motorcycle rally to a contest “Dancing with the Stars” style. This month, pick up consigned art at the Fayetteville Museum of Art or litter with volunteers from Fayetteville Beautiful. Tie one on at the 4th Annual Fly Tie-a-Thon and try your hand at spring planting with the annual sale at the Cape Fear Botanical Gardens.

And on the fourth weekend, it all culminates in three days of food, music, crafts and games in downtown Fayetteville. Festival goers have come to expect a headline performer to take the stage on Saturday night, but this year, for the first time, visitors will have three national performers to look forward to on the main stage in Festival Park.

“This is a first for the festival,” said Russell Hein, entertainment chair.

Southern rockers .38 Special, best-known for 1980s arena anthems like “Hold on Loosely” and “Caught up in You,” kick things off Friday night. The show is sponsored by radio station 96.5 and Bud Light. On Saturday, Collective Soul will crank it up a notch. Radio station Q98 is presenting the popular alternative rock band that scored seven number-one mainstream rock hits in the ‘90s. R&B singer/actor Ray J will close the event on Sunday, courtesy of radio station Foxy 99. The younger brother of pop star Brandy has made a name for himself with hit singles including “One Wish,” “Wait a Minute,” and “Sexy Can I,” as well as his own reality dating show on VH1.

A whole host of performers will open up for Ray J including: DJ “C”, Lady G, James Fortune and Fiya, Reggie Codrington, Tommy Gee Mix, Urban Mysic and Richgirl. The lineup is sponsored by radio stations Foxy 99 and Kiss 107.7.

Carrie King is the festival’s executive director. She said organizers started booking well-known entertainers for the free concerts in 2005. Last year, rocker Eddie Money and piano-playing songstress Vanessa Carlton led the weekend. Headliners from previous years have included Hootie & the Blowfish, JoJo and Edwin McCain.

“Where else can you go see a nationally-known recording artist and not pay a dime?” King said.

Local and regional acts like Swampdawamp, Morris Cardenas and The Borderland Band, Still Rockin’ and Silverstate will open for the headliners on the main stage. People will also have the chance to check out area musicians Saturday and Sunday on the Rock Shop Stage on Hay Street.

King said the aim is to bring as many genres as possible to both stages, and it must be working; the festival received three times as many entertainment applications than last year.

“Everybody wants a piece of our stage, whether it’s the main stage or the second stage,” she said. “This is the biggest party that our city produces.”

But the festival offers far more than just great music. A bustling street fair gives people the chance to pick up items they would not typically find. The midway offers games and rides. There will be plenty of classic and custom vehicles on display at the car show.

KidStuff, sponsored by the Partnership for Children of Cumberland County, features attractions that provide fun experiences and educational opportunities for children. This year’s anchor exhibit is the Two by Two traveling petting zoo featuring koalas, kangaroos, lemurs, jaguars and other exotic animals.

And don’t forget about food – gyros, Italian sausages, funnel cakes, ice cream, corn dogs and other treats. Festivities will fan out from Festival Park to Hay Street, Ray Avenue and Maiden Lane. Like last year, shuttle service will be provided.

City leaders created the Dogwood Festival in 1982 to celebrate the arrival of spring and foster civic pride. After years as a 10-day celebration with citywide festivities, it was restructured in 2000. Events moved to Festival Park in 2007, and last year, more than 150,000 people turned out for the three-day street festival. King believes this year’s attendance will be about the same.

“The past two years have been pretty steady,” she said. “We really saw a spike in our numbers with the opening of Festival Park. Our community has really responded well to the beautiful green space in downtown Fayetteville; it’s enhanced our whole production.”

But perhaps one of the best parts of the festival is the entry fee: free.

“We’re really looking forward to it this year,” King said. “With everything in the media and what’s been going on in the economy, there have been very few silver linings lately. This is a chance to forget all that. You don’t have to spend anything to come here. So, come out and see what we have.”

Jon Warren is the festival’s board chairman. “It’s a really nice, fun event for everyone in the city,” he said, “and a great opportunity for people from all walks of life to get out and get together.”

Robert Grover is public affairs manager for Embarq, Dogwood’s main sponsor. Grover said that the local telecommunications provider has gone through several name change, but has sponsored the event since its inception.

“I think the festival gives us a presence here. It’s an opportunity to reach a multitude of people and showcase our product and services,” he said. “We really get our money’s worth. Primarily though, we do it as a thank you to all our loyal customers.”

Grover says the festival is region’s premier event. “It’s great for Fayetteville. It incorporates so many aspects of the community. There are lots of different things for kids to do, for adults to do and for them to do together,” he said. “Every community needs a festival, and we just happen to have the best.”