By Marianne Martinez & Joel Thomas, CBS 11 News

FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – Art takes center stage in Cowtown on Thursday as the Main Street Fort Worth Arts Festival gets underway in the heart of downtown. The four-day gathering is one of the biggest and most prestigious events in North Texas, transforming the streets of Fort Worth into a super-sized art gallery for one weekend.

More than 200 artists and 400,000 visitors are expected to attend the fest. “It’s a really popular social event for the city,” said arts festival producer Jay Downie. “It brings people downtown who normally don’t come downtown.”

And the stage is set for artists of all kinds to showcase their work at booths spread across Fort Worth. “It’s a great environment,” said artist Eric Ober, who has set up his massive steel sculptures for his third year in Fort Worth. “Gets lots of people. There’s a lot of energy here.”

Although Ober is returning to Main Street, the majority of this year’s artists are new to the festival, like Jim and Linda Dalton from North Carolina. “We’re potters,” said Jim. “We make handmade tiles and hand-built and hand-thrown ceramic.”

More than 1,600 artists applied to showcase their work at the Main Street Fort Worth Arts Festival, but only about 220 were accepted. According to the Dalton, this is one of the most difficult festivals to get into. “This is one of those things that artists gossip with each other about and say, ‘Boy, if you can get into Fort Worth.’ It’s rated the third best art show in the U.S,” Dalton said.

Dalton and other artists are excited about the opportunity to interact with customers and explain how the art is made. “People come to art fairs like this to say they met the artist, and bought the piece directly from the artist,” Dalton said.

But the Main Street Fort Worth Arts Festival is not just about art. There are plenty of activities for the whole family, including music and food. Three stages are set up to showcase live music and performances. Kids can stop by booths to create their own works of art. And plenty of culinary treats will be available to tempt the taste buds.

Although many downtown streets will be closed throughout the weekend, business owners in Fort Worth could not be more excited to see the festival begin. “It’s almost as good as Christmas,” said Kathryn Jones, who manages the Marie Antoinette Spa and Gift Gallery in Sundance Square.

Fort Worth city leaders estimate that the arts festival brings in $18 million for the local economy, and $1.7 million in just state and local taxes. The average visitor spends nearly $80 each day. “Curb-to-curb people,” said Jones. “And even though we are a little bit off Main Street, they do come here and look around, and we really look forward to the festival every year.”

“Everybody, and I mean everbody, and their dogs comes to this festival,” Jones added.

The Main Street Fort Worth Arts Festival opens at 10:00 a.m. Thursday and runs through 8:00 p.m. Sunday, and is free for all patrons. Visit the event’s website for more information including street closures, parking, and performance schedules.