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Surprise turnout at Balloon fest: Larger than expected crowds feed excitement at revival
September 10, 2015 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez

Photos by Nathan Flowers/Spectrum Photography - Spectators enjoy the colorful activity during the Saturday morning launch at the old Mitchell Airport, which kicked off a day of celebration at the return of hot air balloons to western Nebraska.

After a short delay, the Old West Balloon Fest … Re-Inflated met and exceeded the expectations of event organizers at the old Mitchell Airport early Saturday morning − the first day of the three-day spectacle.

“It looked like this was going to be a great day,” said Brenda Leisy, director of Scotts Bluff Area Visitors Bureau and co-chair of the event along with Becky Horne. “But the launch itself was affected by the weather.”

There were clouds and wind which factor into a safe launch. In this case, the winds were too powerful for about 18 balloons that would eventually fill the sky. None of the colorful behemoths got off the ground until about 7 a.m., an hour after the scheduled start time.

According to estimates, there were between 8,000 and 10,000 visitors to the event, with balloonists from as far as Kentucky, Montana, and Colorado. The number of people who attended the festival exceeded expectations. Leisy said estimates put the figure at close to 3,000, based on similar attractions at Telluride and Snowmass. “We just blew the (attendance figures) out of the water,” she said.

After an absence of almost 30 years, balloons last floated over the valley in 1988, when the festival was privately run. “It got to a point, when the balloons hadn’t launched anymore. The group that ran the festival either left or retired,” Leisy said. “We sure would like to keep this going. We are just getting it back; there’s more opportunity for the future, but we still have some things to work on.”

The Gering Civic Center Carla Needan-Streeks said “there was good attendance throughout the first day. As for the impact made on the economy, attendees from neighboring states joined a large number of locals. We don’t have exact numbers for hotels and restaurants, which were really busy, but ultimately, we’ll track some of that.”

Because of the weather, the launches sent the balloons in different directions. Spectators and neighboring towns might have seen a few by chance. Because wind was such a factor, several landed in Scottsbluff, and a few ended up in Gering. On Labor Day, one landed in Morrill about 10 miles west of the airport.

In the evening, folks on the ground took in an eyeful of glowing balloons tethered to chase vehicles. Attendees also took advantage of activities including a kite flying fest, and abundance of food, and a beer garden in Mitchell at the Scotts Bluff County Fairgrounds.

One visitor, Ray Shady from Casper said his balloon “Mountain High” was probably one of the largest balloons at the festival this year, and the only one with a triangle basket. His wife Gail said that Ray has been flying hot air balloons for more than 30 years. “We’ve been all over the country to join in balloon shows,” Gail said. “This is our first time in Scotts Bluff County.”

Ray said he likes piloting because “It’s fun and challenging. And, I can make money doing it as I take people flying.”

Phil Boehr travelled from Lincoln to see Shady and other balloonists. He came to Gering with his granddaughter Caitlin to visit his son Ken Boehr and his family. “I’ve really enjoyed this,” Phil said. “I’ve never been up in hot air balloon, and I have never been this close to one.”

After he arrived at the launch site, he was surprised to see so many people. “A much bigger crowd than I expected,” he said. “We walked around, looked at all the balloons, and picked our favorites.”

His first choices were “Western Spirit,” which featured a horseman, and the Humpty Dumpty balloons.

“There were many beautiful colorful balloons,” Phil said. “It was fascinating. I got right up close to them when they were filling them up with hot air. I was surprised they let me get that close. They probably wouldn’t allow that in a city or larger festival. It was interesting to see the fire and flames; there was a real presence to them.”

Senior reporter Doug Harris contributed to this report.

Spectators at the old Mitchell Airport take photos of the early morning launch for the Old West Balloon Fest ... Re-Inflated.
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