For some Fuquay-Varina residents, the WRAL Freedom Balloon Festival is a traffic boondoggle. For others, it’s a source of pride – and an opportunity to cash in.
Either way, the festival is here to stay through 2022, per a contract between the town and festival organizers. In the event’s second year, the town’s residents and businesses are learning how to make the most of the attraction and cope with the effects of the approximately 100,000 visitors it brings to town.
Last year, shuttles took festival attendees to and from satellite parking lots to the grounds. That strategy was abandoned in favor of a less-structured parking regime, which paid off this year for both downtown businesses and opportunistic residents near Fleming Loop Park, where the festival is held. Residents competed with neighbors to draw festival-goers’ cars to their lots and lawns.
“The market leveled things out,” said Brian Hoyle, president of festival organizers Project Uplift. “People who were charging $10 found the guy up the street charging $5. It made it a more affordable experience for people who wanted to park. We also saw people using bikes and that kind of thing. I’m glad to see that smorgasbord menu of options for people, because it allows them to experience the event the way they want to.”
Similarly, said Rachel Cornett of Fuquay-Varina’s Downtown Revitalization Association, the use of parking closer to the festival grounds kept a steady – though not unusually heavy – stream of customers wandering the downtown. Fearing traffic and parking troubles, some regulars stayed away from their usual haunts, she said.
“The feedback from businesses was that they didn’t see a huge traffic increase from festival weekend itself,” Cornett said. “But in the days and weeks after, they’d have people who had gotten to know Fuquay-Varina that weekend come back to shop and explore when they have more time.”
Even this is a positive change from last year, when restaurants expecting a crush of demand ordered extra food, only to have to throw it out as the shuttle system kept people from stopping by downtown’s restaurants and shops on their way to the festival.
“This year they just assumed it would be business as usual,” Cornett said. “And if they out of food, then they know what we’re looking at for next year.”
The town is also settling into its role as festival host. Substantial renovations will provide new restroom facilities and lighting for the 26-acre park by the time next year’s event rolls around.
Hoyle characterized the weekend as largely successful, but he said he and his team have some kinks to work out as well. Despite clear skies, storms 50 miles to the northeast grounded balloons on Sunday. Hoyle said the festival could have done a better job explaining to disappointed attendees why the balloons couldn’t take off – in that case, because of the uneven air movement caused by the gathering storm as the low pressure zone drew air toward it.
The half-mile walk from most parking options also prompted some light grumbling on social media, but Fuquay-Varina Town Manager Adam Mitchell said he expected most residents understood why it was necessary.
“We’d remind them it’s a free event,” Mitchell said. “The event can’t be free if there’s front-door shuttle service to the event. They’ll be well-prepared this year, just as they are for the state fair.”
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan