When the dust settled from the pilot running of the Freedom Balloon Fest, held over Memorial Day weekend, it was clear to organizers the event’s one main hitch was in many ways a good one to have.
They had anticipated somewhere in the range of 35,000 people would show up at the Bennett Bunn Plantation in Zebulon, the festival’s primary location, and Raleigh’s Spring Forest Road Park between Friday evening and Monday morning.
By Wednesday, the organizers estimated the 43 balloon crews participating at the two sites drew a cumulative attendance closer to 85,000.
“It floored me that interest was that high,” said Tom Lattin, a balloon pilot and volunteer organizer who worked alongside event director Brian Hoyle. “Being the first year, it was hard to estimate what the crowds were going to be. Everything was new – we haven’t seen a balloon rally (in the area) in 25 years.”
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Traffic quickly emerged as an issue on opening night at the Zebulon site, which Lattin figured drew a crowd of about 20,000 to see a mass ascension of balloons followed by a night glow. It also prevented several of the balloonists who participated in the ascension from returning in time to participate in the night glow.
The issue was alleviated for daylong activities Saturday and Sunday, Lattin said, by doubling the amount of shuttle buses carrying people to and from the farm site.
“The Raleigh Jaycees really hunkered down and got the extra bus support and reacted with us with the buses and parking, and that really helped out,” Lattin said. “I can totally understand if the people who came Friday were frustrated waiting in line. I hope that people can be a little understanding that we were just as surprised as they were; we did not expect his onslaught of people, especially the first night.
“Hopefully they came back Saturday or Sunday and realized the event was new. Hopefully they heard from people or came back and realized we got the problems under control and moved forward. If they didn’t come back, hopefully they’ll give us another shot (next year).”
Lattin considered the opening-night turnout both a gift and a curse.
He said had attendance in Zebulon on Friday been closer to 8,000 (as expected) things would have flowed more smoothly but that organizers would not have realized kinks in need of ironing out for Saturday and Sunday, when larger crowds were expected.
“If we did it perfectly the first time, it would never change and it would never grow,” he said. “If they liked this, they’re going to love what’s coming in the future.”
Those who turned out for the event, saw an overwhelming array of colorful balloons and took balloon operators up on the opportunity to take tethered flights. Night time visitors watched as the flames filling the balloons lit up the nighttime sky. And early-morning visitors got the chance to see the balloons race in a competitive atmosphere.
The overall turnout, including the folks who lined up for tethered rides and to see night glows in Raleigh, also made a statement.
Lattin said it will be easier to lure sponsors for a repeat event now that the festival has proven it can provide a vast audience. He also said the economic effects were “huge” in Zebulon.
Private residences took advantage of the opportunity to sell parking. Restaurants did record sales.
“We made more on that Friday than we’ve made (in a single day) the entire five years we’ve been here,” said Hillbillies manager Tina Carter, who worked the entire weekend at the Arendell Avenue eatery. “It was so busy. A lot of people were coming in with binoculars – we could tell they were from out of town to see the balloon festival, which was awesome.”
April Hagwood, co-owner of Hillbillies and McLean’s Ole Time Cafe, said McLean’s was fairly busy on Friday but that the breakfast buffet line on Saturday was backed up to the restaurant’s banquet room.
“To have it that backed up for breakfast was a first for us,” Hagwood said.
The balloon pilots ate for free at McLean’s the entire weekend and their crews also made the restaurant a regular stop, Hagwood said.
More local opportunity
While her restaurants were prepared for the extra customer base, Hagwood wishes more would have been done to include them and other area businesses at the Zebulon event site.
The Zebulon Chamber of Commerce sent its members a handful of emails starting in March, advertising that it would have a merchant village at the festival. The chamber sold spaces first to its members and then extended the opportunity to non-members. But Hagwood said there could have been more conversation and unity between the chamber and its affiliates prior to the event.
“This is a one-time shot for people in our community to get out there and get our names out there,” Hagwood said. “It would be nice to let 20,000 people know who we are. I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels like that. There’s a lot of nice little shops out here that could have benefited from that support.”
Mike Almquist, president of the Zebulon Chamber, said tight planning timelines by festival organizers put some limitations on the chamber’s communications with its members.
“But more importantly,” he said, “if we are fortunate enough to have the festival back next year, I think everyone is more confident it will go better.”