Brian Hoyle learned a few things last year about hosting a big event in a small town when he was planning the inaugural WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest in Zebulon and North Raleigh.
“We didn’t know what we were going to get until we got it,” said Hoyle, owner of Raleigh-based Hot Air Marketing and a balloonist. “We were budgeting for 7,000 people a day and we got 20,000.”
Between 60,000 and 85,000 visitors are expected to descend upon the town’s Fleming Loop Park during Memorial Day Weekend. Those numbers are partly why organizers, in partnership with presenting sponsor Fidelity Bank, launched a volunteer recruitment effort Monday, March 14, in front of the bank’s Main Street branch in downtown Fuquay-Varina.
“We had a third of what we needed, maybe,” said Patricia Roberts, the venue operations director, of last year’s volunteer force. “We didn’t have enough coordinators in place, and we didn’t have the opportunity to get the word out and recruit volunteers early enough.”
Volunteers will be assigned to welcome and direct attendees, work on balloon crews, and help with cleanup. Volunteer manager Amy Gregory said 300 people are needed each day of the event. She said 75 people had signed up before Monday. Online registrants will receive an email inviting them to volunteer orientation in mid-April.
Freedom Balloon Fest will kick off Friday, May 27, with a mass ascension of balloons. Throughout the rest of the weekend, there will be competition balloon flights, tethered rides, more mass ascensions and balloon “glows,” where the balloons are lit up as the sun sets. Between 25 to 35 balloons are expected. Admission is free with costs for the rides and parking.
There also will be North Carolina food vendors, live music, arts and crafts and a merchant village presented by the Fuquay-Varina Chamber of Commerce.
The event has a focus on veterans and military families, with proceeds going to organizations supporting those causes. People can donate $2 for a flag that will be flown in a Field of Flags at Fleming Loop Park. Organizers hope to have 10,000 flags, which will be taken on Memorial Day to cemeteries, military monuments and veterans affairs facilities. Proceeds from the field, seen as a living memorial, will go to the AMVETS Service Foundation.
In addition to recruiting volunteers, organizers are relying on the services of area companies to help with two of last year’s most publicized difficulties: traffic and parking.
Last year, the roads of Zebulon was overwhelmed on the first night of the event as more people than expected came for the mass ascension at Bennett Bunn Plantation. There were complaints about the lack of shuttles and shuttle delays, too, though organizers tried to fix the problems over the course of the weekend.
McLaurin Parking, a Raleigh-based firm, will manage parking for the event. Hoyle said the town has made agreements with farmers on the town’s perimeter to use fields of rotting soybean crops for parking. Shuttles will ferry people from those fields to Fleming Loop Park, the event’s main site.
“They had 12 days of rain last fall during harvest, and some of them never harvested those fields,” Hoyle said. “They’ll get some money out of them – some of them think they’ll get more money this way than they would farming, which is a shame.”
Engineering consultant Hatch Mott MacDonald, which has offices in Fuquay-Varina, will help optimize traffic signals and patterns.
“Traffic’s the one thing everybody remembers (about last year’s event),” Hoyle said. “And there will be traffic. Our point here is that we don’t want to have gridlock. We bordered on gridlock for one day last year.”
Organizers have said they selected Fuquay-Varina for this year’s balloon festival in part because, unlike Zebulon, it’s not on major routes to the coast. That means Memorial Day beach traffic won’t significantly compound festival congestion.
Fuquay-Varina Mayor John Byrne has called the event “the largest single economic development thing that’s ever been done” in Fuquay-Varina.
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan
WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest
▪ The details: The event is Memorial Day Weekend, May 27 to 30, at Fuquay-Varina’s Fleming Loop Park. Events include balloon-piloting competitions, tethered rides and live music. Admission is free, but rides and parking will have fees.
▪ Volunteer: Register at wralfreedomballoonfest.org and select preferred type of work. Volunteers are asked to commit to working at least one 4-hour shift.
▪ Field of Flags: Honor a veteran for $2 a flag at wralfreedomballoonfest.org. The mass collection of flags will be distributed on Memorial Day to area veterans.