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Mini-balloon race to lift off for transportation leaders

NATCHEZ — Hot-air balloons coasting over the city is unusual this time of year, but the Mississippi Department of Transportation, in conjunction with the City of Natchez, is making it happen.

The American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials will host its spring meeting in Natchez May 19-23. AASHTO President and MDOT Executive Director Larry L. “Butch” Brown had the option of hosting the annual meeting in his hometown — Natchez.

MDOT Administrative Assistant Vance Custer and Janet Sullivan, assistant to MDOT Commission Wayne Brown, are working with the Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau to organize a scaled down version of the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race, complete with a balloon glow and balloon rides, May 21-22.

With approximately 300 AASHTO delegates expected to travel to Natchez, Brown wanted give delegates a taste of what the city has to offer year-round.

“Butch gets the credit for recreating the balloon race,” Custer said Friday. “We don’t want people to look in the sky and think, ‘Wow! It’s October already!’

“This is a wonderful PR opportunity for Natchez. We have people coming from all over the U.S., and some have not been to Mississippi. We want (the delegates) to go back to their individual states and say, ‘You have to visit this jewel in the state of Mississippi named Natchez.’”

Custer said balloon glow and balloon rides are for AASHTO delegates and their guests only.

In addition to balloon festivities, delegates will have the opportunity to dine at the Carriage House restaurant, tour historic houses such as Melrose and Longwood, and explore the Natchez City Cemetery during a special Angels on the Bluff tour. A golf tournament and an Adams County Sheriff’s Office-hosted clay shoot are also scheduled.

“We want our visitors to see our shops, art galleries and restaurants, and have an opportunity to go on the special tours we’re offering,” Custer said.

“We are looking forward to showing off Natchez and our people. It’s going to be fun.”

Custer said several community groups will serve as ambassadors during the meeting, volunteering at welcoming booths and hospitality suites.

“This is very much a community effort,” she said. “We couldn’t do this without community backing.”

MDOT Road Supervisor Bud Vines also credits the community for its help in sprucing up the city. Grass cutting crews from McComb, Brookhaven and Monticello have lent a hand also.

“We pulled five crews into Natchez to clean curbs,” Vines said.

“We’ve got sign crews in here to replace signs and we’ve done some more striping.

“Butch has demanded that we have the place cleaned up and looking right.”

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