Help keep balloon race flying high

Published 11:55 pm Tuesday, October 16, 2007

In only a few days colorful hot-air balloons will dot the airspace above your head at no personal cost to you.

It’s an air show brought to you annually by the Historic Natchez Foundation, sponsors and a team of hard working committee members.

Balloons will fly as many as four times this weekend, and if you are lucky, one might just decide to land in your yard.

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The Great Mississippi River Balloon Race is truly an event for all. The race really sees no social, cultural or economic lines.

And the event’s giving nature may be precisely why the race is nearly broke.

Two of the last three years were literal washes for the balloon committee. Rains washed away the fun, the crowds and the profits.

Unfortunately, rain does nothing to eliminate the bills. The whole shebang is running at approximately $200,000 these days, including pilot costs, entertainment costs and hotel rooms.

The rainy day fund has been used up. Twice.

And though no one wants to say it, sooner or later, the money is going to be gone and so are the balloons.

Our area’s biggest annual event, the weekend that draws the biggest crowds, the days that make business boom for shops and restaurants and the balloons that make our children smile could really be gone with the wind.

That is, unless you change the course and send things floating in a new direction.

The problem in the balloon race’s design is truly its generosity. The Natchezians who dreamt up the event must have thought — correctly so — that it would be great to have the balloons launch from anywhere and everywhere. Instead of a directed mass ascension, the Natchez balloons are spread all over Natchez, Vidalia and Ferriday. That way, anyone has a chance of seeing a balloon without even leaving his house, much less paying admission.

So for years, locals have enjoyed balloon race without entering the festival gates.

On top of that, the money that has been raised at the gates and through T-shirt and poster sales is routinely donated to local charities.

Non-profits that rally enough volunteers to work at the festival also get a cut from the race committee.

The balloon race is, after all, a fundraiser. The Historic Natchez Foundation wants to contribute to other local agencies based on balloon race profits. But, they’d also like to make a little money themselves to fund the foundation and future balloon races.

Still further, balloon race weekend has become an industry of its own. Other groups and even the Town of Vidalia have set up their own festivals within a festival, drawing spectators and money away from the balloon race grounds at the Rosalie Bicentennial Gardens.

You can’t blame a non-profit for seizing the opportunity to fund its own projects. It’s merely good thinking.

But the end result may be bad for us all without those shifting winds.

What can you do? Easy. Spend money.

This weekend when you head to the riverfront to watch the balloons fly over the river, buy a $15 ticket and watch them from inside the festival grounds. You’ll be able to hear the bands, buy specialty foods and enjoy the atmosphere inside the gates anyway. Invite your friends and family to come along.

Always wanted a T-shirt to commemorate your town’s great festival? Stop talking about it, and buy one this year. In fact, buy one for everyone in your family. They are on sale now at the Historic Natchez Foundation and the Natchez Visitor Reception Center. Shirts will also be around this weekend with posters and pins to start collecting.

Balloon race has been nice to Natchez for all these years. It’s time Natchez returned the favor.

Julie Finley is the managing editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551 or