Saturday, October 1, 2022

Challenging times for the Balloon Fest

By Cathy DeDe, Chronicle Managing Editor

The 49th Adirondack Balloon Festival has faced challenges on multiple fronts.

Up close! — Some balloon festivals keep spectators at a distance. The Adirondack Balloon Festival offers attendees close access to the balloons. Remember, hands and feet off, unless you’re asked to help. 2018 Chronicle photo/Mark Frost
There will be fewer balloons than pre-Covid, said organizer Mark Donahue. “We have 68 balloons signed up. People in the field won’t really notice the difference, but we usually try to get close to 100.”

Maybe more notable, he says, the Crandall Park launches on Thursday and Sunday afternoon will be limited to approximately a dozen balloons, due to expected crowds and safety in a small place.

“We’re still the biggest festival on the East Coast,” Mr. Donahue said.

He said several balloon festivals have ceased. Stowe, Vt., and Syracuse N.Y. “both cancelled and they’re not coming back.” Binghamton’s fest dropped from 40 balloons to 12; New Jersey, 70 to 40.

Additional challenges: For safety reasons, Adirondack Balloon Festival requires its pilots to have clocked 10 hours of flying time in the past year. The balloons were largely grounded during the pandemic. “Many of the older pilots — to not fly for that long — it’s hard to get back. They just retired,” Mr. Donahue said.

Remembering ‘Joanie’ Mark Donahue, who organizes the Adirondack Balloon Festival, displays this year’s the pilots’ shirt honoring the memory of Joan Grishkot. Joan’s husband Walter Grishot founded the Balloon Fest, and Joan was the behind the scenes stalwart until her death in 2020. Walter passed in 2011. Festival events this year will honor them both. Chronicle photo/Cathy DeDe
“Or they simply haven’t had the opportunity yet to get the hours. It’s a pandemic. People don’t want a balloon full of strangers landing in their yards.”

Working with Warren County and its Health Department director Ginelle Jones, the festival again required all pilots to be vaccinated against Covid, which Mr. Donahue said may also have impacted attendance.

Last year, 40 balloons came for a shortened festival, limited to Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning at the airport, with no vendors or food between flights.

“The Balloons never flew, there was fog every time. But we had a magnificent Moonglow, and we had huge crowds anyway considering. No food, no vendors but they still came,” Mr. Donahue said. “I guess I still didn’t realize what this event means to everybody in this community.”

Challenges: Finances, more

“But it’s been a lot of hard work to get here,” Mr. Donahue said. “People need to know this. We are concerned with finances, between the Covid impact and inflation.”

“It’s been hard getting sponsorships. A lot of businesses were hurt by Covid. We try to limit the cost of sponsorship, $650 to $800,” he said. “Other festivals charge $1,500, a lot more.”

2022 Moonglow pin! This year’s Adirondack Balloon Festival pin celebrates the annual Saturday night Moonglow of tethered balloons lighted from within, bright against the dark sky while music plays. It glows in the dark, Mark Donahue touts.
Barbara Schrader, who was Joan and Walter Grishkot’s neighbor until they both passed, is a regional magazine publisher who took on soliciting sponsorships. “That was always Joanie’s job,” Mr. Donahue said. They have restructured and formalized some aspects of the sponsorships, he said.

The festival typically houses pilots and provides all the propane for their flights.

“Thank God, Suburban Propane is still sponsoring us,” Mr. Donahue says. “We’re so thankful.” They provide discounted fuel for the balloons, and cover the overtime costs for their employees working the event.

Housing costs have more than doubled per room, Mr. Donahue said.

This year they were not able to have all the balloonists in one place.

“We have pilots in about 10 places, from Fort William Henry to the Comfort Inn.

“Where we normally provide two rooms for each balloon crew, we had to tell them we could only afford one this year.”

“We’re doing a pilot brunch this year, but no dinner because we couldn’t find anywhere. Brunch cost $15.50 per person in 2019. This year, it’s $26.

He said they do receive $40,000 from Warren County Occupancy Tax funds.

The annual festival budget is about $175,000.

Just finding T-shirts for the printers was hard this year, Mr. Donahue said. “We sell so many, and we just couldn’t find enough in the numbers we require. We had real supply chain struggles”

Also, he says: “Most people don’t realize, we are all volunteers running the festival. None of us get paid.”
The best way to support the festival, Mr. Donahue said, is to purchase the fund-raising tethered balloon rides, Balloon Festival T-shirts and other merchandise, or 50-50 raffle tickets.

Donations taken at the gate as cars enter the airport go to Warren County for Department for Public Works overtime costs associated with the festival.

Income from the Airport VIP parking passes — now sold out — also go to cover county costs for the festival.

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