Thousands celebrate "Raleigh Wide Open"

RALEIGH But as residents here are perfectly content to note, Raleigh is not like most cities.

Bringing together the best area has to offer in arts, culture, recreation, food, and entertainment, "Raleigh Wide Open" kicked off in grand style Saturday morning with an hour-long parade along the historic Fayetteville Street Mall.

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Despite some moderate rainfall, thousands of people lined the streets to get a glimpse at the dozens of floats and marching bands that made their way through downtown. Eyewitness News anchors Frances Scott, Tisha Powell, John Clark, Chris Hohmann, Steve Daniels, and Barbara Gibbs were all along for the ride, as onlookers soaked in a palpable buzz that moved through the crowd.

"We're having a great time," said Sherry Maurice, who brought her three young children along for their first parade. "The marching bands are their favorite so far. It brings back memories for me when I used to march."

"We come to parades all the time," said Nancy Pomeranz of Cary. "We're not from Raleigh, but we like to support the parades in the area. We think [what they've done in downtown] is great!"

Adding to the uniqueness of this year's celebration was the grand opening of the brand new City Plaza. The area is nearly a decade in the making, and was finally completed Friday. A ribbon-cutting ceremony with Mayor Charles Meeker introduced the city to its newest public gathering place, or, as city officials call it, Raleigh's "public living room."

The area features free public Wi-Fi internet access, sculptures by local artists, motion-sensing fountains and 50-foot light towers. Retailers including The Collector's Gallery, Shishkabob, and Krispy Kreme have opened shop as well. The first business to commit to opening a location in the plaza, Jimmy John's, will open in the near future.

"I never believed it would be so festive," added Patricia Atwell, whose daughter is performing with her school's band. "This is good. It's giving me a bit of a Georgetown feel," she said.

"I think it's going to be great," said Marc Mestayer, one of the first people to grab a seat along the parade route. "It's much improved from what it was."

And while some of the activities and vendors on hand for this year's Raleigh Wide Open were fairly familiar to long-time Raleigh residents, a few unique features give this year's event an interesting flair. Chief among them - the opportunity to audition for Wheel of Fortune, as the distinctive Wheelmobile made its presence known at the base of the Wake County Courthouse.

"Of course we're going to go and try out," Sharon Smith of Raleigh said Saturday morning, motioning to her friend. "We're ready, we're gung-ho! We're going to get on the show and when we get on we're going to win. I love that show, I watch it everyday."

Other highlights of this year's event: a kids' zone, street performers, beer and wine tents, a mini book sale, and the Art Raleigh market, which showcased more than 20 artists and craftspeople from across the state.

Music literally took center stage at this year's celebration. Four different stages were set-up along Fayetteville St., with 18 different bands providing a range of musical entertainment.

As evening fell upon Raleigh, the City Plaza was transformed once again, as some vendors cleared out and the Fireworks Main Stage was set up for the headlining musical act Delbert McClinton. His performance began around 9:00pm.

"We're excited to see some of the local bands playing today," said Nicole Curtis as the parade wrapped up Saturday morning. Curtis was attending with her husband and one-year-old son Curtis.

"It's what we need downtown," she said. "We're huge downtown goers. We're excited to see the growth."

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