Tens of thousands of people were expected to arrive in Fuquay-Varina for the WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest over the course of Memorial Day weekend, and the town wanted to put its best foot forward.
As host of the festival for the first time – last year it was in Zebulon and North Raleigh – the town spruced up its sidewalks and planted new trees. Downtown businesses put up balloon-themed window displays to celebrate the occasion.
But when Friday afternoon rolled around and about 25,000 out-of-towners arrived in Fuquay-Varina, merchants say Main Street remained quiet, or at least no more heavily trafficked than usual.
Fearing gridlock, the festival’s organizers had implemented a shuttle system to keep cars out of downtown. Visitors mostly parked in lots toward the outskirts of town and took buses to the Fleming Loop Park festival site. Others turned to enterprising landowners charging a premium to park on their properties closer to the festival grounds.
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“We fixed (the traffic) problem, and probably fixed it too well,” said Brian Hoyle, the festival’s chief organizer. “People listened to the publicity and came to the festival and avoided downtown. But the intention was not to shut (downtown businesses) out of the room at all.”
Trams were available to circulate visitors between Fleming Loop Park and Fuquay-Varina’s two downtown districts, but it appears few visitors chose to venture far from the park once they were dropped off, instead staying on site to check out vendors, entertainment and the many food options on site.
“We had to make the tough choice of managing the masses as best as we could and then hopefully getting people to listen to the message about the tram,” Hoyle said.
Organizers and town officials both touted the event as a potential boon for downtown businesses. Saturday, the Fuquay-Varina Downtown Revitalization Association posted a plea on Facebook to attract visitors, expressing concerns that restaurants had stockpiled perishable ingredients and brought in extra staff in anticipation of the crowds. But those crowds never materialized.
“That’s unfortunate,” Town Manager Adam Mitchell said. “Because our plan all along was for people to come in the morning for the balloon flights, leave for an hour or two in the course of the daytime and spend a little money, and come back for the evening activities.”
The Hook and Cleaver, a Fuquay-Varina butcher shop, posted photos to Facebook Saturday about 2:30 p.m. showing a sunny but mostly deserted downtown with the caption: “The coast is clear. No balloon traffic. Come on down.”
Another Main Street business, the Mason Jar Tavern, made a similar online post Saturday morning. “Hey locals! Please don’t avoid downtown this weekend!” its post read. “It has been extremely slow down here and we are all prepared for the masses! Come support your local businesses this weekend!”
Jonathan Pierce, owner of the Mason Jar Tavern, referred questions about the weekend to a statement posted on Facebook. He said he doesn’t blame organizers’ efforts to avoid gridlock. He added that most of the overstock had been salvaged or donated.
“We cannot fault them for doing their jobs too well,” Pierce wrote. “Next year, I plan on doing a better job as a business owner of asking more questions and being more involved in the process to insure (sic) downtown businesses see the fruits of bringing over 70,000 people to our town.”
The public response to the downtown association’s initial post, which included an impromptu gift certificate drawing, appears to have been substantial. More than 400 people had liked it and about 350 had shared it by the middle of the week. The association asked visitors to visit downtown restaurants and businesses and post selfies of themselves with employees.
Despite the downtown slowdown and long lines for shuttles Friday night, plus rainy weather that grounded many Sunday events, organizers said the festivities inside the park were well-received.
Hoyle said he’ll bring the festival back to Fuquay-Varina next year, if the town will have it. Mitchell said the town’s intention always has been to host the festival for several years.
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan