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Great Mississippi River Balloon Race could end if 2014 is bad year

NATCHEZ — The risks have never been greater for the future of the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race, officials said.

Even though the final numbers for the 2013 balloon race have yet to be finalized, balloon race committee members don’t expect them to be good.

“We took a pretty big hit this year,” Historic Natchez Foundation Executive Director Mimi Miller said.

As a nonprofit 501(c)4,  the balloon race must submit its financial information for public inspection to the IRS. Recent filings for 2012 show the race made $33,831 in 2012 and $10,141 in 2011.

In 2012, the balloon race made $340,313 in revenue and $306,482 in expenses.

Assets reported in 2012 totaled $263,436.

Accountant Judy Wilson, the race committee’s financial manager, said the organization’s assets are used to pay for the following year’s race. Of the assets, approximately $95,000 is set aside in certificates of deposit as a rainy day fund, Wilson said.

Producing the annual balloon race is expensive.

When a rainout occurs and the balloons don’t fly and gate numbers dwindle, the committee still must pay for everything except propane for the balloons, Miller said. This year the race spent approximately $90,000 for the musical acts, Wilson said.

Final receipts from vendors and other expenses from this year’s race will not be tallied until November, Wilson said, but it appears this year’s race will be a loss. The 2013 race’s assets likely will not be enough to open the gates for 2014 without dipping into the rainy day fund, Wilson said.

“If we have another rainout or a weekend (next year) like we had this year, we will not have enough money to do it again,” Balloon Race Committee Executive Director Babs Price said.

In  the race’s 28-year history, only two weekends passed in which balloons were grounded all weekend because of weather. This year, only two of the five regularly scheduled flights were made.

Price said she doesn’t want to say or even think about not having a balloon race, but that is the reality the committee faces.

Miller said if the balloon race is unsuccessful next year, the committee will have few options left for continuing the event.

“There would have to be community fundraisers to get it back or we would have to borrow money,” Miller said.

A week before this year’s balloon race, officials had high expectations for the event.

Area hotels were booked solid, and initial sales of T-shirts and other race items looked good.

But several days of rain and the chance of even more erased any sense of optimism, Price said.

It also brought hotel reservation cancellations and lower gate numbers. The threat of rain and a festival site without balloons during the annual balloon glow, left Friday night’s numbers way down, Price said.

Receipts from Friday night’s gate were down $10,000 from the 2012 race, Wilson said.

“It doesn’t take a rainout to hurt us bad,” Price said.

Preliminary gate proceeds from the weekend show a significant drop in attendance numbers for Friday and Saturday, Price said. Sunday was the only bright spot.

“Thankfully we had balloons Sunday morning and Sunday afternoon,” Price said.

Unfortunately Sunday’s numbers will more than likely not outweigh the losses of the weekend, Price said.

In recent years, the balloon race committee has discussed changes to the race, including doing away with the music festival altogether. But the money from balloon sponsorships does not cover the cost of putting on the race, Miller said.

Each sponsor for the 2013 race paid $800.

“Hotel costs for pilots, propane for the balloons, money for the sponsor dinner, insurance and other costs add up,” Miller said.

This year, 68 pilots registered for the race.

“The festival is how we make up for the difference,” Price said.

Even still Miller said she is not sure balloons alone would be a good draw for visitors.

“The balloon races happen early in the morning and late in the afternoon,” Miller said.

What is clear, Miller said, is the committee needs to focus on making 2014 a successful event, not just for the race but also for the community.

From hotels and bars to restaurants and local shops, the balloon race was meant to boost businesses in Natchez.

“That is why we put the festival downtown instead of at the airport like most balloon festivals,” Miller said.

For many businesses, it is one of the biggest weekends of the year, Miller said.

“Our goal is to make it a stable event for Natchez for years to come, “ Miller said.

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