Hot-air balloonists return to Ascension Parish as part of annual balloon festival

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GONZALES, Louisiana — 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 tells The Advocate (http://bit.ly/1uJ6XD3 ) 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 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.


Information from: The Advocate, http://theadvocate.com

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