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Natchez put the ‘unity’ in community last weekend

Waking up on Sunday morning with the pride felt for my city was indescribable. The Great Mississippi River Balloon Race Committee for over 30 years has put their heart and soul into the festival and making it a successful event for Natchez.

To those on the committee, Thank you! It is a thankless effort that receives nothing but unsolicited advice and criticism. This year has been no different. When the Balloon Race committee made the announcement that they were not having a festival on the grounds of Rosalie, some people might have panicked, but others saw opportunity.

You always hear that when a being loses one of its senses, all the others get stronger. That was how Natchez felt this past weekend. We knew it was going to be a balloon event instead of the festival. Balloon Glow Friday and Saturday night and fireworks on Friday night.

For the first time in my lifetime, my city truly came together and created an incredible experience for our visitors as well as locals. Jennie Guido from Monmouth witnessed firsthand: “In Natchez, Balloon Race weekend is almost a religion. If you live here, you don’t leave town that weekend.

If you’re from here, you come home that weekend. This year’s Balloon Races showed why you don’t miss this third weekend in October. It made me proud to be from Natchez and all of the hard work our community put into these three days.”

Haley Stiles, a local bartender, said: “Everyone who crossed my bar was having a great time, the locals were talking about how alive and vibrant downtown was, how great all the venue and bands were, and the tourist all fell in love with our hospitality, our people and our town…It felt good.”

Our town was alive and getting the economic shot in the arm that it desperately needed. Many restaurants and shops’ overall sales were up from last year and the best they have had all year. Live music was all over town, from the bandstand on the bluff, Smoots, Natchez Manor, the Brewery and all free.

We had an art exhibition that would normally be found in major cities, an event that celebrated the four elements, and a town buzzing with visitors.

Ryan Richardson, manager at 100 Main, worked harder than she had ever worked in her 20 years of bartending and brought home double what she made last year. Mike Wagner, owner of The Camp, said his sales were about the same from last year, but they closed an hour early on Friday and Sunday and two hours early on Saturday.

Four operational hours of being closed and still broke even from last year. Natchez Brewing Company saw a significant increase and nearly doubling their sales. Their best day ever was in part because of the location of the Balloon Glow on the north end of the bluff.

The decision to spread the balloons throughout the city was brilliant. It forced visitors and locals to go to different parts of town and to patronize local businesses instead of confined at the grounds of Rosalie and forking over hundreds of dollars to outside vendors. From Pedro’s on U.S. 61 North to the Bellemont Shake Shop on U.S. 61 South, everyone got a piece of the pie.

With the way this year has gone, nobody knew what to expect.

In years past, not much has changed with the layout of the festival. Sometimes things will never change unless they are forced, which a global pandemic will certainly do. Maybe this was the change that was needed.

We have never felt more invested in the Balloon Festival than this year. The assistance of Visit Natchez and the NCPC made most of these events possible. Listen Up Y’all, Community Alliance, the Chamber of Commerce, the Festival of Music, just to name a few, were all instrumental in our successful weekend. Haley Stiles also said, “This year it was all of us that felt responsible for keeping the party going.”

Our city depends on Balloon Festival weekend and the economic impact from this format is undeniable. Thank you to the Balloon Race Committee for everything you do and have done. Thank you for even having an event. And also, thank you, Natchez. You know how to throw one hell of a party.

Sarah Lindsey Laukhuff, event and sales coordinator, The Natchez Grand Hotel & Suites.