Ascension officials consider balloon festival future after poor showing in 2013

The Louisiana Balloon Championship Festival, sponsored by Ascension Parish government, took a sizeable loss on paid attendance of 35,000 people to the three-day weekend event at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in late September, the event’s chairman said.

With $158,369 in expenses still unpaid by the event’s organizing nonprofit, the Parish Council Finance Committee voted Thursday to form a subcommittee to evaluate what went wrong, what to do about the pending bills and how to proceed with the event.

The subcommittee is expected to report to the full Finance Committee next month.

Chairwoman Teri Casso said she would select subcommittee members.

This year was the second for the parish-owned Lamar-Dixon Expo Center to host the event, the descendant of the balloon festival held at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge for nine years.

Ascension Parish government has kicked in $49,900 annually the past two years for the event. Another $100,000 in state funding also went to the festival in 2012 when it turned a small profit of $14,827.

The event’s volunteer chairman, Ascension Parish businessman Brad Walker, gave the Finance Committee several reasons why the balloon festival ended up in the red this year. The festival had total expenses of $235,285 on revenues of $139,619 in 2013.

He said the event’s budget was based on last year’s less precise attendance estimate of 60,000 people; corporate sponsorship were down versus last year; admission of $2 per person was too low — the event was free last year — and the number of balloonists, whose lodging and expenses must be paid for, was nearly doubled from last year. Walker also said there were too few volunteers to help run the festival.

The sour financial results prompted an extensive discussion about the festival, its identity and future, and whether such an event is an appropriate public expenditure even if it does not end up breaking even.

Parish President Tommy Martinez, who played a role in luring the festival from Baton Rouge in early 2012, said parish leaders need to find out whether the community supports the festival.

“It’s a wonderful event. I thoroughly enjoyed it in the past two years, but the whole thing is that this is going to have to be a community event,” Martinez said.

“This is not going to be a Parish Council event. This is not going to be a Brad Walker event. It’s going to have … It’s going to take all, all facets of people in the community.”

While several on the council said they wanted to find a way to refine the event, others questioned the appropriateness of continuing to spend tax dollars on the event.

Councilman Todd Lambert took note of earlier comments that the festival was going through growing pains and that it can take five years to turn a profit in a new business.

“That’s fine on a business, but we’re not a business. We are a parish government funded by the citizens of this parish, and it’s a little different. We’ve been losing money every year to try to start a business,” said Lambert, who spoke shortly before Martinez did.

Total expenses for the balloon contests and balloonists, which is only part of the total expenses, rose between 2012 and 2013 by more than $50,000, from $70,156 to $120,655, according to a financial accounting provided the committee.

The event is put on by the Ascension Festivals and Cultural Council Inc. The nonprofit group took over from the former festival organizers in mid-2012 after Pennington parted ways with the event in February 2012 over safety concerns.