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Is balloon race in need of a major facelift?

The Great Mississippi River Balloon Race seems to be having a bit of an identity problem — several, actually.

Is it a hot-air balloon race or a music festival?

Is it a Natchez event or a Miss-Lou one?

Is it for the spectators or the balloon pilots?

When lady luck calms the winds and the balloons can fly all weekend, the event  — arguably the best single event in the region — comes close to hitting on all of those marks. But most of the time, one side or another leaves disappointed.

A well-organized, well-meaning team of volunteers leads the balloon race. They do amazing work to be so few in number.

The whole event seems to be one that’s always in a state of pushing and pulling.

The music festival is a big draw for many, but hot-air balloons make it more special.

Part of unpredictability of flying hot-air balloons is that you go when and where the wind allows.

Although it began and is based in Natchez, it’s almost always been a Miss-Lou event since Concordia Parish’s abundance of flat land makes a perfect launching or landing spot.

All was good until a few years ago, tensions built over the feeling that Vidalia was siphoning off visitors who might otherwise pay for access to the festival grounds.

Whether or not that was true doesn’t matter. It was a perception that was difficult to shake.

Balloons are beautiful, but it’s not uncommon for them to take off, soar across the sky and be missed by thousands of local residents. That’s because their takeoff and landing sites vary greatly and the best flying is just after the crack of dawn.

The most popular event for the average Joe is the Friday night balloon glow, at least in part because it’s easy to know exactly where to go to see a balloon.

Who can blame them? It’s romantic for the women and features enough burning propane to appease most men. But the kicker is, most pilots don’t like it. For them it’s like having the coolest, fastest sports car in town and only being able to crank it up in the garage and let it idle for an hour.

But it’s what people want.

So is the solution to the balloon race’s constant worries over money to simply give people more of what they want? Perhaps.

Or at least Warren Reuther thinks so.

Reuther is the president of the New Orleans Hotel Consultants, the firm contracted to operate the Natchez Convention Center. His company also owns the Natchez Grand Hotel and Monmouth Plantation.

Reuther is a go-big or go-home kind of guy. His suggestion?

“The problem is a lot of people don’t see the balloons,” he said. “They need to block off the whole riverfront, charge a fee to come see the balloons. Have it all strung out on the bluff. Make it bigger.

“I think if you did some of these things, you would increase the attendance.”

It’s not a bad idea, particularly if the city could help with the blocking of the streets so you could charge admission to the bluff.

Of course, while we’re thinking about it, why not do the same thing on the Vidalia Riverfront?

Rather than trying to force people into the relatively small festival site, why not just seek to limit access elsewhere and charge for access.

“Changes are difficult, but need to be made,” Reuther wrote in an email to balloon race committee members. “You just cannot keep doing the same old things. Disney World changes rides every year to get old and new visitors new things to experience to keep them coming back.”

Reuther certainly has self-interest in packing the bluff for balloon race as it would hopefully pack his hotel, too, but his ideas shouldn’t be discounted just because of that. Everyone in Natchez “gets” something out of a successful balloon race.


Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or kevin.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.