Let’s inflate bigger, better together

Published 12:03 am Wednesday, October 17, 2012

In just two days the party starts in Natchez for the biggest single weekend of the year.

Former residents and college students pour back into town. One-time visitors roll in, not really knowing what they’ll encounter. And locals carefully plan their perfect weekend.

It’s happened for decades now, growing and improving over the years.

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But could big get even bigger? Could great be better?

Of course!

A hard-working group of volunteers, that includes a few city tourism employees, constantly asks that question, I’m sure. They think about what bands to bring, where to place balloon targets, T-shirt sales, parking and much more.

But what could happen if this group partnered with a similar group in Vidalia to rethink the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race with regionalism in mind?

That’s a nasty thought to some close to the race, I know.

In recent years there’s been a bit of bad blood about the ever-growing list of events on the Vidalia riverfront during balloon race weekend.

In order to keep the balloons coming back, the race must make money off ticket sales at the festival gates. But when admission is free in Vidalia and the same balloons fly by, race proceeds suffer.

Though the weekend is huge for local businesses, those sales don’t fund the balloons, the musical acts or the festival set-up.

So if too many people opt to enjoy the fruits of the weekend without paying the price, we’ll all be enjoying the third weekend of October without any hot-air balloons or musical acts in the future.

But a working partnership between the two cities could solve many woes while making the race weekend better.

Two of the biggest balloon race complaints I’ve ever heard — aside from ticket price — revolve around crowds and atmosphere.

The Natchez race, like many of Natchez’s biggest events, isn’t all that family friendly. Alcohol is prominent and the majority of the race’s entertainment budget (after balloons) goes to bands, not family fun.

If the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race truly spanned the Mississippi River, organizers could work to set up a family side in Vidalia — where alcohol is typically limited at city-sponsored riverfront events — and an adult party side in Natchez.

Parents would have the choice about where to take their families.

Admission prices could vary from side to side, and the additional space would spread out the crowds.

Both sides would be required to contribute a portion of proceeds into the pot that serves as startup money for the next year’s race.

Our local communities have talked about regionalism for several years now. Ideally, the idea lands our region a multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art, clean industry that employs thousands.

Realistically, the idea can make a difference in one short year if its established leaders poke their noses where others may not think they belong and force two sides to the table for the betterment of the community, tourism efforts and a one-weekend economic boom.

Let’s bring the race back to the river and sink our egos. The Mighty Mississippi is the thing that makes us special — to each other, to the pilots and to the visitors.


Julie Cooper is the managing editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551 or julie.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.