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Organizers, officials working to keep GMRBR from drifting away

JUSTIN SELLERS / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — A balloon lifts off from the festival site during the final day of the 2013 Great Mississippi River Balloon Race.
JUSTIN SELLERS / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — A balloon lifts off from the festival site during the final day of the 2013 Great Mississippi River Balloon Race.

From its inception, the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race has always been about making money.

When the bottom dropped out in the local oil industry in the 1980s, community members got together to find a way to attract tourists and dollars to Natchez and the surrounding community. Everyone involved in putting the race together then was an uncompensated volunteer, and 28 years later that’s still the case.

Making money is still the focus of the balloon race after all those years, too.

“We didn’t start the race to make money for us — we did it for Natchez,” balloon race committee executive director Babs Price said. “We are not making money. Natchez is.”

The primary goal of the balloon race is to bolster the business of local bars, restaurants, hotels and other shops in the area, Natchez Historic Foundation Director Mimi Miller said.

But as local business in Natchez and Vidalia reaped the benefits from the balloon race, the costs of putting on the race have increased, including everything from insurance for the festival to the propane for balloon flights, Miller said.

Sponsorships for balloons have increased to help, but they do not cover the cost of putting on the race.

The balloon race committee has been trying to take profits earned from successful balloon races to build a rainy day fund, Miller said.

In recent years, the focus has changed to a more regional approach.

“We have had an ongoing conversation with Vidalia for years,” Price said.

Last summer, the balloon race committee sat down with Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland and Marketing Director Sheri Rabb to discuss how the two cities could work together to make each other stronger.

Each fall, Vidalia and Natchez are hosts to two of the area’s biggest festivals. The Concordia Chamber of Commerce organizes the Jim Bowie Festival and BBQ Throwdown each September. The Great Mississippi River Balloon Race is always on the third weekend in October.

In recent years, the festival calendar has been filling up with more and more new events, Price said. In some instances, events have started competing with each other for attendance.

“The whole basis of our conversation (this summer) was to talk about how we could help each other out,” Price said. “We all decided it was in the best interest not to have competing festivals.”

The two cities decided to take a more regional approach, Price said, and each entity committed to helping each other.

“We made it clear if they needed help with anything just call,” Price said.

This year, for example, the balloon race committed to putting more balloons on the Vidalia riverfront for the annual Friday night balloon glow, Price said. Ironically, the riverfront had more balloons glow this year when the balloon race had only one balloon to inflate.

“We are sister cities joined by one bridge,” Price said. “If we help each other to make everyone stronger, it helps everyone.

“If we end up folding, no one wins — not us, not our neighbors and certainly not the businesses that depend on (the balloon race).”

Not everyone agrees that multiple events on the calendar compete and subtract from each other.

Eric Glatzer, executive producer of the Vidalia Landing Flea Market — the event primarily seen to be in competition with the balloon festival — said the two events added to each other when they happened on the same weekend.

Justin Sellers / The Natchez Democrat — LT Hennessy, 8, takes a ride down the “Fun Slide” during the Vidalia Fall Market at the riverfront Saturday.
Justin Sellers / The Natchez Democrat — LT Hennessy, 8, takes a ride down the “Fun Slide” during the Vidalia Fall Market at the riverfront.

“The more of these events you can throw into a weekend, the more of the citizenry you can enfranchise into your community,” Glatzer said.

This was the 13th year of the annual flea market, which Glatzer took over five years ago. As a result of the summer meeting and non-competition agreement, the date of the flea market was moved to the weekend before the race.

Glatzer said he learned of the agreement by letter after the fact.

“Both communities lost,” he said.

Breaking away from the balloon festival ultimately hurt the market — Glatzer said it dropped from 110 booth spaces to 45 in 2013, and afterward 17 of the 39 separate vendors declared no sales at all.

“We still drew about 2,500 people and had 45 booth spaces, so it is a viable economic entity but I don’t know if it can survive,” he said. “I might have to completely rebuild the concept and start running music myself.”

Glatzer said from his perspective the flea market has been propping up the balloon race in recent years.

“When the balloons don’t fly, these people come to town and look for something to do when the balloons aren’t flying; we were keeping the people in town,” he said.

Glatzer said he got a phone call from a group of 10 couples who have been coming to the balloon race and flea market for years. They were furious.

“The women didn’t want to come to the balloon race and drink, and the men didn’t want to shop,” he said. “So if they couldn’t have both things at the same time, they would rather go to the Gulf Coast. That is where they went. They took their money down there and spent it.”

Copeland said he didn’t personally agree with separating the two events on different weekends, but the decision was made as a sign of cooperation.

“I think some people don’t have the money to attend two different events, and there are people who go to balloon race that are coming to Vidalia and vice versa,” Copeland said. “Some people are not going to go over to Natchez for various reasons and would rather go to the flea market, but I believe the more people you have in the area, the more people are going to attend both events.”

One thing Price said she has received complaints about the balloon race is the price of admission to the festival.

Price said compared to other festivals in the area and in the region, the balloon race is a bargain.

This year admission was $5 for Friday’s balloon glow, $20 for Saturday’s events and $15 for Sunday’s events. A weekend pass cost $30.

The cost of admission to June’s Sibley Zydeco Festival in Adams County was comparable, Price said.

The Sibley Zydeco Festival’s website indicates Saturday admission was also $20.

Tickets for the one-day Modern South Music Festival in St. Francisville on Nov. 10 are $50 for reserved seating and $40 for general seating.

Tickets for events such as Memphis’ Beale Street Music Festival and bigger music festivals are generally two or three times the cost of admission to the balloon race, Price said.

“We are trying to make ends meet, while making it affordable,” Price said. “But we have to make enough money to keep the festival going.

“We have to make it in the gate.”

Copeland said he’s fielded several calls from local and out-of-town residents who were upset about the decision to move the flea market — some of the callers said the reason was because of a feud between Copeland and Natchez Mayor Butch Brown.

“I want to emphasize that there are no issues with Mayor Brown or the City of Natchez and myself,” Copeland said. “We have worked on a lot of projects together and will continue to do so.”

Brown reiterated the point, saying, “Any rumor of some schism between Natchez and Vidalia are simply untrue.”

Brown said even before the summer meeting the balloon committee members had, he and several others met with Vidalia city officials to address concerns raised in the community shortly after the 2012 balloon race.

“It was all very congenial, very cooperative,” he said.

“Everybody was pointing fingers at everybody else, but nobody was talking to each other, so Hyram and I decided we would sit down and talk with each other.”

The City of Natchez does not have any direct involvement in the balloon race, Brown said, but the entire area benefits from successful events.

“We don’t have a barbecue contest at the same time as the Bowie Festival is going on,” he said. “For all practical purposes, Natchez and Vidalia are separated by a street, except it is a body of water — we are all the same community.”

Copeland said any rumors about the meeting or the decision to move the flea market from the balloon race weekend being forced on Vidalia are untrue — it was a mutual compromise.

“We sat down, listened to their ideas and made a decision, but weren’t bullied,” Copeland said. “We could have said, ‘No,’ but we didn’t.

“I didn’t want them to be able to come and say, ‘We’re not going to be able to bring the balloon race back because Vidalia caused us financial issues,’ because that’s the last thing I want to happen.”

Future decisions about scheduling the flea market on a different weekend than the balloon race will happen on a year-to-year basis, Copeland said.

“We’ll sit down with them every year, discuss the situation and make a decision annually on what we’re going to do,” he said. “We want to bring as many people to the Miss-Lou as possible.”