Goal set to raise balloon fest funds _lowres

Martin McConnell

Former two-term Ascension Parish councilman and banker Martin McConnell, an early backer of parish involvement with the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in the mid-2000s, has been hired by parish government to raise money for the center and a revamped hot-air balloon festival slated for the fall.

McConnell became the center’s sales and marketing director in early March and leads the Ascension Festivals and Cultural Council Inc., the nonprofit that has organized and held the festival bank account the past few years, parish officials said.

“I’m proud we hired Martin McConnell, and he’ll do an excellent job as sales and marketing manager for Lamar-Dixon Expo Center,” Parish President Tommy Martinez said.

The Louisiana Hot-Air Balloon Festival has been set for Sept. 26 to Sept. 28, Martinez said, and parish officials have already raised $20,000 for the festival with commitments for more. He said the center hopes to raise $140,000 to $150,000 and have enough in hand to pay for the festival.

He added that if parish funding is needed, it will come from Lamar-Dixon’s account up front and money collected at the gate should offset any other costs and pay back Lamar-Dixon.

But Martinez said festival fund- raising is only part of McConnell’s job.

Martinez said the 247-acre parish-owned center will have an additional 75,000-square-feet of indoor space to market once the 4-H Building has heating and air installed through federal hurricane recovery funding.

Martinez noted that McConnell’s ties to the business community should help with marketing the multi-use complex near Gonzales.

Prior to joining the parish, McConnell was Gonzales-area manager and bank officer for American Gateway Bank, which he joined in 2009. Earlier in his career, McConnell was former vice president of United Community Bank and was as executive director of the Ascension Chamber of Commerce.

As a councilman in 2005, McConnell backed then-Parish President Ronnie Hughes’ successful bid to sign a lease-purchase agreement for Lamar-Dixon and provide $1 million in parish funding for the then-privately held center.

Martinez, who took office in January 2008, saw through an agreement to buy the center in August 2009 for $7.5 million with federal and state grants and appropriations. Parish government finished paying for the center in November 2010.

Martinez, whose last term on the council ended in January 2008, said a new volunteer festival committee, which includes Lamar-Dixon co-founder Mary Lee Dixon, as well as officials from parish government, law enforcement and the business and nonprofit communities, has been formed and is discussing what the future festival would entail.

He said the festival is likely to have 30 balloons but not be an official balloon championship event. He said the group is also trying to find more things for families.

“We want to have something during the day for everybody,” he said.

McConnell was hired March 3, parish government spokesman Lester Kenyon said. McConnell is being paid a salary of $61,984 and replaced longtime parish official and Martinez lieutenant Garney Gautreau.

Last year’s event was headed through the festival nonprofit by then-chairman Brad Walker, a businessman in Ascension and parish government contractor, and took a $145,000 loss.

One major factor in 2013 was the increased cost in paying for the travel and room and board for more balloonists for the championship event, up $50,000 from 2012. On the revenue side, organizers also did not raise as much in corporate sponsorships in 2013 as anticipated, Walker has acknowledged.

Martinez said after some festival costs were reduced or forgiven, such as from the Sheriff’s Office, parish government paid $100,000 from Lamar-Dixon’s funds to settle the outstanding bills, as authorized by the council in mid-December. The council agreed to have the parish take a more direct role in the event.

Martinez noted that concessions from the event in 2013 were kept by Lamar-Dixon, earning it about $20,000.

Members of the festival committee are Mary Lee Dixon; Flo Magee, Lamar-Dixon general manager; Sherry Denig, executive director of Volunteer Ascension; Audrey Boudreaux, Project Kidz Kove board member; Lt. Col. Bobby Webre, Ascension Parish sheriff’s chief of criminal operations; and Sherrie Despino, president and chief executive officer of the Ascension Chamber of Commerce.

Also, Capt. Dowell Brenn, patrol commander for the Gonzales Police Department; James LeBlanc, St. Amant fire chief and constable; Gwen LeBlanc, Ascension Parish chief financial officer; Kim Braud, Martinez’s chief executive assistant; Tracy Browning, director of Ascension Parish Tourism Commission; Rick Webre, director of the parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness; Lester Kenyon, parish government spokesman; and Mark LaCour, Wright’s Furniture.