GARDINER — Waterfront Park will be booming from Friday night through Tuesday as summer activities along the Kennebec River pick up steam.

Three fireworks shows will cap off events that are focused on Water Street in Gardiner or city’s park on the river during events that are expected to draw thousands of people to the city in southern Kennebec County.

On Friday, Johnson Hall kicks off its free outdoor summer waterfront concerts. On Saturday, the city will celebrate the Greater Gardiner Riverfest with games, food and music and on Tuesday, the Great Race, a cross-country rally-style race for antique cars, will pull into Gardiner on its way from Buffalo, New York, to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

These events, as well as dozens more across the region that are celebrated as part of the annual Whatever Festival, are highlighting what the Kennebec Valley has to offer to residents and visitors.

“The first issue for me is, why do we have these three things happening?” Gardiner Mayor Thom Harnett said.

“In some ways, it’s the culmination of work that began with the Orton Heart & Soul process, when the community came together to talk about what’s important.”

For two years, the community outreach program helped Gardiner officials identify a list of community values that have helped guide decisions made by the Gardiner City Council for the past several years. They included promoting family-friendliness, education, developing a strong local economy and making Gardiner a livable city.

What grew out of that process, Harnett said, was a volunteer ethic that supports events such as the Greater Gardiner Riverfest and others hosted by Gardiner Main Street and sponsored by local businesses.

That ethic also will help with the Great Race, which marks a collaboration for Gardiner with the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce that Harnett said city officials are pleased with.

“Augusta is also celebrating the Great Race,” he said. “The drivers and their crews are staying their Tuesday before they move on. It shows that when a region comes together, it can have tangible, economic benefits for many communities.”

The cars are expected to start arriving around 5 p.m. Organizers say the stop is expected to draw thousands of people to see the cars come into Water Street. Food trucks, live music and fireworks are planned, and a shuttle bus system will bring people to downtown Gardiner from satellite parking locations in town. When that wraps up, the cars and their support teams will travel to Augusta, where they will spend the night and depart from the next morning to continue on their route to Canada.

For several years, Peter Prescott, chief executive officer of E.J. Prescott in Gardiner, has been lobbying race organizers to bring the race to Maine. In 2014, the race started in Ogunquit, but racers left the state almost immediately on their way to Florida.

“I kept the heat on,” Prescott said from his office Tuesday, a day before he left for Buffalo to register and get ready for the state of the race with his team and his 1948 dark green Ford with a bright orange lobster painted on it.

Prescott said his goal is convincing the hundreds of people associated with the race — more than 500 people in more than 100 teams — to return to Maine and spend some time here.

“This is the first time it’s ever happened in Kennebec County,” said Steven Marson, chairman of the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commmerce’s board of directors. “It’s going to draw thousands of people.”

With them will come a bit of an economic bump, as people spend money on food, shopping and gas, Marson said.

However, he said, it’s also a sign that more is happening in the region.

“There’s a lot more going on in the area, with businesses and people moving here from away,” he said. “When you can start putting on first-class events, people will have the opportunity to experience them for the first time and see the fun. They’ll want to keep coming back.”

Every year, the Whatever Festival pulls together events from across the region. This year, it runs from June 13 through July 4 and includes Blistered Fingers Family Bluegrass Festival, which took place last week at the Litchfield Fairgrounds; the Johnson Hall Summer Waterfront Concert Series in Gardiner; and Kennebec River Day in Mill Park on June 30, which includes music, demonstrations and crafts. This year the event also will include the Kennebec River Brewfest, which will feature brews produced in in Kennebec County and elsewhere in Maine.

The festival, in its 39th year, ends on July 4, with the Capital City Riverfront Fourth in Augusta, which features a parade, live music and fireworks in the evening.

“We bring in a lot of people from out of state for these events,” said Katie Doherty, president of the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce.

While the Whatever Festival highlights summer events, it does have the potential to draw people to the region throughout the year.

Michael Miclon, the executive artistic director of Johnson Hall, said for years the season for the performing arts center ran from September through June. With the summer break, people would get out of the habit of going to shows, and attendance would be light up until October.

With the free, outdoor shows on the Gardiner waterfront, people continue to attend shows and return to Johnson Hall in greater numbers once fall arrives.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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