Panel says fire up those balloons

Recommendations: Pay debt, reorganize

An Ascension Parish Council subcommittee probing the future of the Louisiana Balloon Championship Festival recommended Thursday that parish government take full control of the festival under a new organizational structure.

The group also proposed having the parish pay up to $100,000 to the nonprofit that put on this year’s event in exchange for festival trademarks and leftover merchandise, such as T-shirts and pins, and to cover some event expenses.

The full council is expected to vote on the subcommittee recommendations Dec. 19.

The festival has been put on the past two years at Lamar-Dixon Expo Center by the nonprofit Ascension Festivals and Cultural Council as a promotional event for the parish and the parish government-owned multi-use facility near Gonzales.

But Brad Walker, a local businessman and the nonprofit’s volunteer chairman, reported last month that the group overshot on its attendance estimate for the late September event, underperformed on getting sponsorship dollars and had nearly $158,400 in unpaid expenses with little money left in the bank.

Still, some council members on the subcommittee said they saw the event as a success that just needs some financial tightening and broader community buy-in.

“I think we can all agree that as far as an event, the balloon festival was a success,” Councilman Randy Clouatre said.

“Do we have to work on the business plan? Yes, we do, and I think with the parish being involved with it, closely with it and it being a Lamar-Dixon event, I think we can accomplish that,” he added.

The festival had been at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge for nine years but it ended its relationship with the festival, then under different organizers, in early 2012.

As proposed, the council would pull $100,000 from the parish Lamar-Dixon fund, which had already donated nearly $50,000 for the late September festival.

Councilman Todd Lambert expressed concerns about setting a precedent for other nonprofits that receive parish funding. Walker countered the balloon festival is different because it is designed to promote the parish and raise money for Lamar-Dixon.

The council committee voted 4-1 to provide the $100,000 after reviewing invoices. Lambert was opposed.

Walker presented invoices Thursday for $145,204 and said later he would personally cover leftover costs but was pleased the parish is continuing the event.

The subcommittee also agreed to a new organizational structure. The festival committee would be placed under the direction of the Parish Council, the parish administration and Lamar-Dixon’s staff and would include representatives from Gonzales, Tourist Commission, the Rotary Club, the Sheriff’s Office and others.

“As soon as I get finished with it, it’s going to have every phase and walk, including the School Board and everybody else, involved in this thing,” Parish President Tommy Martinez he said after the subcommittee meeting.