Annual festivals mean big bucks

Published 12:08 am Sunday, October 12, 2008

NATCHEZ — The plethora of festivals in the Miss-Lou brings more than good times to the area — it brings an economic boom.

The Great Mississippi River Balloon Race is expected to draw in 30,000 people next weekend and to have an economic impact of $2.8 million, Tourism Director Connie Taunton said. That includes $981,900 spent on just hotels. But Taunton said that even that is a conservative estimate.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the event is restaurants.

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“Of course with the balloon races the most anticipated festival of the year, I assume big crowds,” Fat Mama’s Tamales owner David Gammill said. “We’re certainly looking forward to it, it’s our biggest weekend of the year”

Fat Mama’s recently moved into a new, bigger building, so Gammill said he does not know exactly what to expect.

However, they have hired more people since moving, so they have a task force that can handle larger crowds. As far as running out of supplies, Gammill said he will do whatever it takes to prevent that.

“If that means being up all night making chili, so be it,” he said. “We don’t want to run out.”

Soul Heaven owner Alisha Wilson, who is also running a booth on the festival grounds, said she hopes that balloon race brings in as much money as she expects it to.

“I’ve got my fingers crossed, because it’s been really slow downtown for the past two months,” she said.

One of a Kind Gifts, a store on Main Street, is also expecting big business, owner Mary Lees Wilson said.

One of a Kind has ordered balloon-related items and plans to stay open all weekend, to accommodate the crowds of out-of-towners who will want to see downtown.

“I honestly think it’s our busiest weekend of the year, right up there with the first Saturday before Christmas,” Wilson said. “I would say it’s in the top three weekends in my store for sure”

But the benefits of balloon race are not confined to the east side of the river.

River View RV Park and Resort in Vidalia is fully booked for balloon race weekends until 2015, River View Manager Linda Johnson said. They have a waiting list of approximately 100 people.

The RV park was also filled to the brim for this year’s Jim Bowie Festival, and is approximately halfway booked for 2009.

“There’s a big difference (between) when we have festivals and when it’s just a regular weekend,” Johnson said. “Jim Bowie, balloon race, the Hog Rally, we’re always affected by any festival.”

They generally see a 50 to 75 percent increase in business, she said.

And the rest of Vidalia also sees a big boost from the Jim Bowie Festival, Sept. 28 and 29.

Approximately 4,000 tickets were sold this year, Vidalia Chamber of Commerce President Sam Jones said. And several hundred more people attended to work the booths and with the professional barbecue teams.

“It’s not how many tickets we sold or how many vendors we had, but when we draw this many people, a certain percentage of those are going to be out-of-towners,” Jones said.

This year’s festival was comparable to last year’s economically, Jones said. And last year the Jim Bowie Festival had an economic impact of nearly $1 million.

“(The out-of-towners) come in and buy food at the local restaurants; they stay at the hotel or at the RV Park,” Jones said.

Also, a lot of local residents eat out during the Jim Bowie Festival, causing a substantial increase in restaurant business.

Wanda Howard, manager of the Sandbar Restaurant in Vidalia, said the restaurant had approximately a 30 percent increase in business during this year’s Jim Bowie Festival, and expects another business boom during the balloon race.

“(We have) a lot of out of town people that we don’t normally see,” Howard said. “Of course we still have our regular customers.”

The Natchez Art and Soul Festival, although much smaller than either balloon festival or Jim Bowie Festival, still has an impact on downtown Natchez, said Kevin Miers, who has been involve in the festival since its inception four years ago.

“A lot of the shops will see increased business that weekend,” said Miers, owner of South Union Antiques. “Many businesses in the past have reported increased sales that weekend and stayed open later because of the increased traffic.”

Artists also saw their sales double from 2006 to 2007, which is a sign that the festival is growing, he said.

Last year Art and Soul attracted an estimated 1,000 people and they are looking to expand, Natchez Downtown Development Association Director Carrie Lambert said.

“The balloon festival is huge, we’d like to grow into that but we have a ways to go,” Lambert said. “We’re still taking baby steps to get there. We’ve made some changes so this can bring in more revenue. Every year it’s a work in progress to see what works and doesn’t work.”

Last year they made a profit of around $4,000 and this money is used for downtown beautification, and as start-up money for the next Art and Soul Festival.

“What we’re hoping to do is made a big profit,” Lambert said. “Our intention is to purchase some hanging baskets for the downtown corners.”