It’s crunch time for Fuquay-Varina and the organizers of the WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest, the Memorial Day weekend event expected to bring between 60,000 and 80,000 visitors to the town.
Cautious optimism has thus far defined the town’s approach to the hot air balloon festival, which has the potential to be both a blessing and a boondoggle. The hordes of out-of-towners bring with them an economic boost and increased regional excitement about the town, but they’ll also bring more traffic to Fuquay-Varina’s crowded roads.
The four-day event will kick off Friday, May 27, at Fleming Loop Park, with a mass ascension of hot air balloons. The festival continues through Monday, May 30. The event, now in its second year, features rides, food, children’s activities, arts and crafts, and balloon “glows,” where multiple balloons light up simultaneously. The event’s focus is on veterans and military families, with proceeds going to organizations supporting those causes.
This is the first time Fuquay-Varina has hosted the free event with the inaugural festival held last year in eastern Wake County and North Raleigh. Then, organizers were inundated with an unexpected high number of attendees, who crowded the roads and prompted quick adjustments to parking and shuttle schedules.
To prevent a similar situation, organizers have more than 9,000 parking spots set aside in lots – mostly fallow farmland – near each major thoroughfare into town. No streets will be completely closed other than Fleming Loop itself, which runs around the 30-acre Fleming Loop Park. From the parking lots, shuttles will take attendees downtown, where a tram will circulate through Main and Broad Streets.
“Obviously, when you add 20,000 people per day to the mix, potentially, it only brings (traffic concerns) to light even more,” said Adam Mitchell, Fuquay-Varina’s town manager. “But generally the event itself – the positive attraction of the hot air balloons, the weekend it’s happening – all that overshadows the concerns and the minor negativity that we hear about traffic.”
Another tactic at play will be offering some of the festival’s marquee events later in the evening, such as live music and a simultaneous ascent of the event’s 35 balloons. Organizers said that should help stagger departures enough to keep frustrations at manageable levels.
“The idea was to add programming toward the end of the night so people who aren’t sensitive to getting kids to bed and that kind of thing can stay,” said Brian Hoyle, whose company, Hot Air Marketing, is the event’s chief organizer. “Then people aren’t just sitting in line waiting for a bus at the same time. The reality of it is they don’t have enough buses to handle everybody on demand.”
Similarly, organizers said, early-morning balloon flights starting shortly after 6 a.m. should help spread out arrivals.
Hoyle said he and his team have worked with the town to locate tram pick-up points in both the Fuquay and Varina downtown districts, where local businesses are preparing balloon-themed window displays and menus.
Linda Frenette, executive director of the Fuquay-Varina Chamber of Commerce, said she has received calls from businesses and residents expressing both excitement and concern about parking and crowds, but that she has “full faith in the festival.”
Her organization will sponsor a merchants village throughout the event, where more than 50 businesses will set up booths for the weekend. The chamber is still accepting applications for available booth space.
“The local merchants have been rolling out the red carpet,” Hoyle said. “I’m very, very impressed. The town put in new trees, new pavement. They really spruced it up.”
Frenette said she and the town were honored to have been chosen to host the event, but said the chamber still has a lot of work to do in the next two weeks.
“We are in dire need of volunteers, still,” she said. “The chamber especially is seeking volunteers to help with the merchant village and as well as helping with the security of the merchant village after hours.”
Hoyle and the festival organizers have enrolled 700 volunteers and completed orientations for them this past week.
What’s left to worry about? Lots of signs for drivers and pedestrians, fencing, and further talks with public safety officers from the town and county, who will be on hand to keep things moving smoothly and safely. Oh, and the one thing the town can’t control.
“If you had to ask me the one biggest thing we’re worried about, it’s the weather,” Mitchell said. “We’ve worked really hard to prepare for this event to be successful, so the most discouraging thing would be if the weather kept the public from enjoying the festivities.”
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan
WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest
When: May 27-30. Festivities start at 2 p.m. Friday and wrap up around noon on Monday.
Where: Fleming Loop Park, 301 Fleming Loop Road, Fuquay-Varina
Cost: Free admission; parking is $10 and an all-day tram pass is $5
Schedule highlights: Competition flights start around 6 a.m. on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Spend the daytime hours browsing in the merchants village, listening to live music and attending pilot meet-and-greets. The mass ascension of all 35 balloons will occur each evening at 6:30 p.m. Stick around for the hot air balloon glow at 8:30 p.m. each night. Live music continues until 10:30 p.m.
Volunteer: The Fuquay-Varina Chamber of Commerce needs volunteers to help with vendor booths. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 919-552-4947 or go to bit.ly/23KwCvF.