As the 2006 Clinton Riverboat Days is set to begin with Thursday’s parade, we turn back the clock a bit to last July, when the 2005 festival was the subject of many, many reader’s letters, some in praise and others in protest.

As we said at the time, “although a private venture, Riverboat Days has, in a sense, become somewhat of a community property. People are proud of Riverboat Days and happy to have such a fine attraction in their own backyard.”

We believe that to be true today, and that’s why we’re so excited at the prospect of this year’s celebration. In addition to a fine list of main stage musical acts — Creedence Clearwater Revisited, Sawyer Brown, the Grass Roots, Foreigner and Phil Vassar — the Riverboat Days board has done what appears to be a terrific job of reinventing the festival by adding attractions that play to the strengths of the festival grounds while also reaching out to the event’s target audience.

This year’s three new attractions, the Smokin’ on the River Barbecue Contest, Mini-River Pullin’ tractor pull and Race the Riverfront go-kart races are significant festival additions that should add more value to the cost of an RBD fun card. They also reveal a commitment among RBD board members to, pardon the cliché, think outside the box and find a way to once again make Riverboat Days something special and unique.

The third annual RBD Car show will be featured, as will the Jaycees Carnival, which is looking to bounce back from a disastrous 2005, a situation created by contract disputes with an amusement company. That issue has been remedied, and the Jaycees event figures to be exactly what people are anticipating.

Riverboat Days isn’t for everyone. Some have outgrown the high-decibel riverfront concerts, others just never got into them. But the event continues to draw substantial crowds to downtown Clinton, and its impact on the local economy exceeds $1 million.

Every festival has its challenges, and it would be foolish to think all three new events will go off without a single hitch. But what is most important is that much of the complaining about the 2005 Riverboat Days has faded away. In its place is excitement and anticipation, the familiar buzz that begins when Riverboat Days is just a few hours away.

In the last few years, Riverboat Days at times looked like an aging heavyweight, rocked by punches from several angles and staggering for direction. But now it seems grounded, both feet planted firmly and ready to charge out of the corner with both fists pumping. When the bell rings Thursday, we’ll begin to see exactly what all the fuss is about.

Our advice is simple: Bet on the champ.

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