After last year’s financial losses, Balloon Festival returns to Ascension Parish — with funding _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by JOHN OUBRE

More than 30 balloons will fill the early morning skies of Ascension Parish this weekend with bright purples, reds, oranges and yellows as pilots compete in a target competition over Central Primary School.

The hot-air balloonists are returning for a third year to Ascension Parish as part of the annual balloon festival at Lamar-Dixon Expo Center after festival organizers had a rough, money-losing experience in 2013.

This year, however, the most important color associated with the renamed Ascension Hot Air Balloon Festival may be black — in the accounting books.

Parish officials say a refashioned volunteer committee, a trimmed-down balloon event and a new commitment to seek sponsors has resulted in festival expenses being covered before the first balloon inflates Friday afternoon in the big grassy pasture behind the multi-use complex near Gonzales.

“It’s already paid for with the sponsorships, period,” said Martin McConnell, sales and marketing director of the parish-owned center.

The event has 82 sponsors, including “crown” sponsor L’Auberge Casino and Hotel, which provided $20,000.

The festival starts at 4 p.m. Friday and continues from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, with a morning craft show only on Sunday.

Ballooning competitions will center on Central Primary School on La. 621 at 7 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.

At Lamar-Dixon, in addition to crowd-pleasing afternoon and evening balloon glows, balloon tether rides and fireworks shows Friday and Saturday, a broader array of events also is in the offing, including a car show, carnival rides, a petting zoo, a barbecue competition and bands, parish officials said.

Though parish government has had varying levels of involvement since the balloon festival left Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge in early 2012, the formal entity behind the festival is the nonprofit Ascension Festivals and Cultural Council Inc.

Last year, the festival drew an estimated 35,000 people but ended with nearly $158,400 in unpaid expenses. Festival organizers had to ask the Parish Council for $100,000 from Lamar-Dixon’s funds to help cover the loss. That came in addition to $50,000 that Lamar-Dixon had already donated toward last year’s event. The remaining expenses were forgiven or paid by last year’s organizer, businessman Brad Walker, he has said.

The council agreed in December to spend the additional money but also moved to take over more direct oversight of the festival with the Ascension Festivals and Cultural Council and to tighten the budget. Martinez said the first two festivals were very positive and well-received as far as entertainment.

“It was all just positive. It wasn’t like it was a flop on that end. It was just a flop on the financial side, and this year we wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again,” Martinez said.

McConnell said the festival council, which started in 2014 with no money in the bank and some outstanding debts, had $149,600 as of Wednesday. The group expects to spend just less than $140,000 on the festival this year with no influx of cash from the parish necessary, officials said.

In contrast, the 2013 festival racked up $235,285 in event expenses against total event revenues — including sponsorships — of $139,619, according to figures provided last year.

In 2013, organizers had banked on a much larger turnout based on inflated figures from 2012 — 60,000 people — and $2 attendance fees, which were being instituted for the first time in 2013. Organizers did not press as hard for sponsors.

McConnell said this year’s festival has commitments of $146,250 from sponsors and has already collected $141,150. Another $8,450 has been collected from vendor fees. Still to come are $2 entry fees from adults and older youths and a share of proceeds from some attractions.

Officials also said they hope the broader array of activities will bring visitors sooner and keep them longer at Lamar-Dixon. McConnell said any money the festival makes after defraying Lamar-Dixon’s expenses, such as for cleanup, will be used as seed money for next year.

He and Martinez attributed the financial reversal to several factors. The ballooning competition was cut in half to one slightly smaller than the 2012 festival, from 58 balloons to 32 to 33. That saves on putting up traveling balloonists in hotels and paying their expenses.

Last year’s festival was also a sanctioned balloon championship. This year’s competition will be for bragging rights.

The more extensive ballooning event last year had boosted those costs between 2012 and 2013 from $70,156 to $120,655, last year’s figures show. McConnell said the festival is spending about $47,000 this year on balloonists.

Martinez also recruited a diverse group to the festival volunteer committee, including officials from the Gonzales Police Department and the parish Sheriff’s Office, as well as Tour Ascension, the parish tourism bureau.

McConnell said the group met every week for six months, first figuring what did and did not work last year and then collaborating on how to find sponsors.

Tracy Browning, executive director of Tour Ascension and a committee member, said her organization helped buy ads, including billboards, and did graphics and other marketing work in kind.

McConnell said there also seemed to be more buy-in this year, in particular after L’Auberge made its commitment known. He added a perk allowing sponsors of $2,000 or more to ride with balloon competitors Saturday and Sunday morning helped draw in the dollars.

“It’s all kind of falling in place, and hopefully, we can get a good weekend weatherwise,” Martinez said.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.