GONZALES — The hot-air balloons are back at Lamar-Dixon Expo Center for a fourth year, and the finances behind the annual balloon festival and competition continue to rise toward further self-sufficiency, parish officials and organizers said.
The two-day festival of balloons, barbecue, classic cars, blues music and nightly fireworks kicked off 4 p.m. Friday and is expected to continue 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday at the center while balloon competitions will be at Central Primary School on La. 621 at 7 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Thirty balloons and three “shape” balloons — a crab, a bird and a cat — will be on hand at Lamar-Dixon for nightly “balloon glows,” while balloon tether rides will also be available.
“The kids should get a real kick out of seeing these balloons light up,” Robert Ambeau, festival committee member and head of flight operations, said in a news release.
Both the balloon glow and rides are pending bad weather.
Two years removed from a money-losing year in 2013 that parish government bailed out for $100,000, the Ascension Hot Air Balloon Festival this year had an estimated $50,000 saved after last year’s scaled-down but better-sponsored event. Organizers with the Ascension Festivals and Cultural Council Inc., the nonprofit behind the festival, raised another $130,000 in sponsorships this year, parish officials said.
Outgoing Ascension President Tommy Martinez said if this year’s event is successful, the council should have a strong enough reserve to cover one year’s worth of expenses in case of a bad year.
Martinez, who leaves office in early January after eight years, has been an ardent promoter of Lamar-Dixon as a quality of life venue and has sought to establish a marquee event for the publicly owned events complex near Gonzales.
“It’s important we get as many people as we can to come see what Lamar-Dixon is like,” he said.
When balloon festival organizers learned they would no longer be able to use Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge in early 2012, parish officials swooped in to bring the event to Lamar-Dixon’s 247 acres off La. 30.
Financing for the center and later for the center’s marquee event have been a persistent focus of critics after Martinez pushed through an array of state and federal grants and state appropriations to buy the center in 2009 for $7.5 million. Voters had rejected a property tax for the center in 2008.
But, for a second year in a row, parish government funds have not gone to the festival, Martinez said.
He noted the event kept about 90 percent of last year’s sponsors, including lead sponsor L’Auberge Casino Hotel, and added new ones, including Raising Cane’s.
Martinez and area legislators have also lined up funding for a new access road to the center, with construction possibly starting n ext spring.
Backups at the I nterstate 1 0/La. 30 interchange have been a problem, so o fficials are advising visitors from Baton Rouge to use the center’s back entrance. Drivers should get off at I-10/La. 73 in Prairieville, follow La. 73 to La. 30, turn left and then right on Ashland Road.
Daily admission is $5 for those 13 and older, and free for children 12 and younger. Check out ascensionballooning.com.