GONZALES — More than 25,000 people are expected to visit the parish next month for the 2012 Louisiana Hot Air Balloon Championship Festival, the chairman of the Ascension Festivals and Cultural Council told the Ascension Parish Council Thursday.
“Time will tell if Lamar-Dixon will be able to handle that,” Brad Walker, chairman of the festivals organization told council members.
Walker said he is working with both the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office and Gonzales Police Department to coordinate and control the additional traffic that is expected in the parish on Sept. 21-23, the weekend of the hot air balloon festival.
The festivals council had joined with the Louisiana Ballooning Foundation to hold the Hot Air Balloon Championship and Festival in August in both Baton Rouge and Ascension Parish. The balloon flights would have been held in Baton Rouge with a festival at night in Gonzales.
The Louisiana Ballooning Foundation, however, pulled out of the event.
Officials in Ascension Parish then seized control of the event, originally moving it to October. That date, however, conflicted with several local events and with a national balloon competition in New Mexico. Walker said after consulting with Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez, the group settled on the September date.
Despite the initial problems with the festival, Walker told the council his organization is committed to putting on a quality event that will attract people to the parish and its top facility.
“Everything we’re doing here is to get people to Lamar-Dixon,” Walker said.
As of Thursday, Walker said, 28 balloons had registered for the event. He and he said he expects as many as 35 to register prior to the festival. Walker said the festival group committed that if more than 20 balloons registered it would push forward with the festival.
Several members of the Ascension Parish Council questioned Walker about the festival’s finances.
Walker said the state and parish government are the primary funders of the festival, which is expected to have about a $200,000 budget. The festival received a $100,000 grant from the state, and the parish kicked in $49,900. The remainder of the festival’s costs will be covered by sponsors, Walker said.
Walker also said he was open to working with the Ascension Parish Tourism Commission and its new director, Tracy Browning, who attended Thursday’s council meeting to deliver a presentation to the council about what her organization does to promote tourism in the parish.
“We’re working together to try to figure out how we can assist and what we can do for the balloonists,” Browning said.
Councilman Todd Lambert said he thought the parish would get its money back from the festival.
Walker, however, said there will be no admission or parking charges at the festival, so the only other way to raise money is through sponsorships.
He noted that all of the proceeds from food and beverages sold at the festival will go to Lamar-Dixon, which is owned by the parish.
Walker acknowledged that the logistics of moving the festival to Ascension Parish after it was held for nearly a decade in Baton Rouge haven’t been easy.
But with a firm date for the festival set, the festival organization is optimistic moving forward, he said.
“This has been a challenging experience, bringing balloons to Ascension Parish,” Walker said.
“I think we’re seeing some issues here and there because that’s what happens when you institute a new event,” Councilman Kent Schexnaydre said.
Walker touted the Ascension Ballooning Festival as a “day for families.”
It will feature bands, balloon and rocket demonstrations, food vendors, a children’s “inflatable village,” crafts, face painting and balloon glows at night.
In addition to the actual festival, the parish will be home to balloon flights.
“You will see balloons all over Ascension Parish,” Walker said.
Council members expressed optimism that the Ascension Ballooning Festival can be the parish’s premier festival and an anchor event for Lamar-Dixon.
“Hopefully everybody will get behind it and make this bigger than what occurred in Baton Rouge,” Walker said.
“I think this is fantastic and can’t wait to see it happen,” Council President Chris Loar said.
In other action Thursday the council voted to settle a lawsuit filed by Florida Parishes Bank against the council involving the nonconforming commercial use of two lots zoned residential along La. 621 in Prairieville.
The council had that the nonconforming use zoning had expired, reverting the two lots and shuttered commercial buildings to residential.
The bank had alleged that the parish erred in ruling the nonconforming use expired.
Loar said the settlement would grant a one-time exception to the residential zoning and wouldn’t carry over should the businesses be closed.