Fearing traffic jams and general chaos, organizers of the WRAL Freedom Balloon Festival devised an intricate system of satellite parking lots and shuttles last year to keep cars from clogging the streets of downtown Fuquay-Varina.
It worked well – almost too well.
Downtown businesses, which had eagerly heralded the festival’s arrival with posters and balloon displays in their storefronts, did not see the bump in customers they anticipated from the event’s first year in town. So this year, organizers hope to keep people close to downtown by using private and public parking lots within walking distance of the festival grounds of Fleming Loop Park.
“While last year’s plan worked well in many regards, to have these satellite parking lots with buses shuttling people in, some of the feedback that the event organizers heard was that there were areas of our community that did not get the benefit they thought they would get,” Fuquay-Varina Town Manager Adam Mitchell said. “Activity was pretty sparse in downtown, for example. People were shuttled in and shuttled out, so they didn’t experience other parts of what our town has to offer.”
Downtown businesses like The Mason Jar Tavern, a popular restaurant, and the Hook and Cleaver, an artisan butcher, made special preparations and bolstered their inventories in anticipation of crowds that didn’t materialize.
This year, a map of parking options is being updated on the festival’s website (freedomballoonfest.com) as organizers make agreements with the lot owners.
Fuquay-Varina leaders have hoped the festival will be an economic boon for the town, which last year signed an agreement to keep the event through 2022.
Last year, more than 70,000 people came to Fuquay-Varina for the festival. This year’s event will be May 26-29 – Memorial Day weekend – as a tribute to the armed forces.
Brian Hoyle, whose nonprofit Project Uplift organizes the event, said its first year in Fuquay-Varina was especially well-received by the balloon pilots.
“We actually have a waiting list of pilots who want to be in the event, which is obviously a wonderful thing,” Hoyle said. “I received an email from one of the pilots, who said that many of the pilots he was around said Fuquay-Varina was the talk of the Albequerque (International Balloon) Fiesta – the biggest balloon festival in the country. People were learning how to pronounce Fuquay-Varina and wanted to know what they had to do to get into this event.”
This year’s event will debut a mobile app, which Hoyle said organizers will use to help people find parking, view event schedules and receive alerts about cancellations and other changes in the event of poor weather.
The town has made several improvements around the site, including a sidewalk on Academy Street to the park and a new water line extended across the park to allow food vendors to spread out more than last year.
Mitchell said the entrance to the park has been widened to reduce bottlenecks late at night if everyone decides to leave at once.
“But a lot of people have the impression that the town puts on this event,” Mitchell said. “That’s not the case; it’s put on by Project Uplift. We are simply the host city.”
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan