Despite bad weather, Walla Wallans make 37th Balloon Stampede shine

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The Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce put on the 37th Annual Balloon Stampede last weekend or, more accurately, some of it was held!

As you may know, we were hit with bad weather and then hit by nasty weather on Saturday late afternoon and on Sunday. We unfortunately had to cancel our launches set for Saturday and Sunday mornings and the Nite Glow event on Saturday night. Make no bones about it; Mother Nature is absolutely the executive producer of the Balloon Stampede!

While some of our events had to be canceled due to safety concerns, many of the elements of the Stampede went on as planned and were enjoyed by the community.

This was my first Balloon Stampede having joined the Chamber late last year. I won't soon forget it! I would like to share with you some of my favorite moments from my rookie season.

Thursday was media day and several news outlets came at 6 a.m. to the VA Medical Center grounds to cover the Stampede. It was great to see the pilots laughing and greeting each other since our event is the first of the ballooning season.

Balloon pilots are a different breed of cat and lots of complete characters. It was very fun to watch them catch up with their old friends.

Mark Brown, executive director of Friends of Children of Walla Walla (and a terrific musician) went up in a balloon to play Reveille on a trumpet. The pilots began to inflate their balloons, the sun came out and the sound of the balloons firing and watching lift off was magic.

Gesa Credit Union was our title sponsor this year and a great partner for the event. The very best part of Thursday morning's launch was watching the absolute glee of Christina Brown, Gesa's CEO, go up for her first balloon ride.

Our Stampede Balloonmeister, Jerry Cummins, piloted Christina and her fianc?©, Bob Lethlean, from the VA out to the airport.

Friday morning, the balloons filled the skies of Walla Walla, launching from 14 different schools. As I was driving around town, it was such a fantastic sight to be encircled in all directions by these magnificent machines. This year we held the first "Balloonathon" event that was a competition consisting of a balloon race, a 15-mile bike race and a 5.8-mile run. The sponsoring teams competing were Cascade Natural Gas, Columbia REA, The Noon Rotary Club of Walla Walla, The Walla Walla Exchange Club, Windermere Real Estate and Coldwell Banker First Realty.

The event raised over $16,000 for local charities. Bragging rights go to Windermere this year. Congrats!

Friday afternoon, the Balloon Stampede opened at the fairgrounds with a talent show for kids under 12 held on the Serenity Point Stage. This event was sponsored by The Home Loan Center.

A cute 4-year-old girl sang her heart out for the crowd. A dozen local kids "competed" on the big stage for the first time. Great stuff!

Friday evening was our champagne reception held to thank the 35 pilots who attended and our many sponsors including the 30 "Balloonmeister" Sponsors, our launch sponsor Pacific Power and Nite Glow sponsor Gilbert Honda.

The champagne reception was sponsored by Walla Walla Catering, which put on a fantastic meal and Parties Plus really created a great environment in the Historic Pavilion. It was a great finish to the day.

Saturday started out sunny and warm and a large crowd was enjoying food, entertainment, a classic car show, the Children's Museum exhibit and lots of other activities.

Then, late afternoon, I noticed the large American Flag on top of the Pavilion whip around 180 degrees. Uh oh! About 45 minutes later, the storm was upon us and I made the tough decision to cancel the event.

Huge gusts of winds blew vendors' merchandise, signs and tents were coming down and was quickly followed by torrential rain and lightning. It rapidly became a dangerous situation. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt.

But here is where Walla Walla's true colors came out. Not in the skies as planned, but firmly on the ground.

Immediately, it became an all-hands-on-deck situation to get folks safely out of the facility, helping vendors get their merchandise stored, protecting equipment and property.

The great officers at the Walla Walla County Sheriff's Department, volunteers, vendors, the public, everyone was helping each other and making sure folks were safe.

It was as impressive as the monsoon that was coming down at the time. The other impressive thing was that the mood and spirit of the crowd was still positive and purely one of getting done what needed to be done.

So, lastly, heartfelt thanks to all of our volunteers and sponsors who work so hard to put on the Balloon Stampede. Over 200 busy people gave countless hours planning and executing the Stampede.

The 37th Annual Balloon Stampede was a shining event (despite the weather) for Walla Walla and what this community is all about. I am glad I could be a part of it.

David Woolson is CEO and president of the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce.

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