WALLA WALLA — A new era for the Walla Walla Balloon Stampede launches this year.
The Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce announced Thursday that after more than two decades at the helm it will no longer produce the community’s annual hot air balloon festival — the Northwest’s longest running hot air balloon event.
Instead, the festival will transition to the leadership of Scott and Laurie Spencer, two Boise-based hot air balloon pilots who have long been a part of the Balloon Stampede and who also organize the annual Boise Balloon Classic.
This year’s event will be a scaled-back version of the Stampede to which fans have become accustomed in recent years. It will refocus more on the launches and flights at local schools, and eliminate many ancillary extras. There will no longer be an opening night catered dinner for ticket-holders. Nite Glow will be moved from the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds to Walla Walla Community College. And vendors who previously lined the midway will no longer be part of the festivities.
The event will more closer resemble the Balloon Stampede of years past when the launches were at Howard Tietan Park or Walla Walla High School, organizers said.
“We want the focus back on the flying, the balloons and the pilots,” Jerry Cummins, the event’s longtime balloonmeister, said in an announcement. “Think of it as ‘Back to the Future’ when the entire event was purely about the spectacle of the balloons in the sky.”
In the wake of the announcement, social media erupted Thursday evening with comments from people worried about the future of the local event.
One Facebook page — “Walla Walla Life” — dared to ask if the changeover in leadership foreshadows death of the event.
Another, “My Town Walla Walla, Washington,” administered by longtime Balloon Stampede volunteer Liz Pierce, lamented the loss of vendors and activities that fill the time between launches.
“Yes, there will be a new balloon event hosted by a company who are pilots, I’m glad that they chose to do some launches for you,” she wrote to readers. “They have chosen to not have the vendors, the entertainment, the car show, the spelling bee, the pilot welcome, the champagne reception and kids museum. I understand it will be easier without all those things, but it also leaves the balloon launches as the only attraction. Even if you have perfect weather at best you will have four hours spread over four days of balloons lifting off ‘if’ the weather cooperates.”
Pierce said she decided this morning to remove the posts, which had drawn emotional reactions from residents. But the sentiment continues, she said.
The Spencers — who also fly balloons around the world for The Walt Disney Company, Coca-Cola and General Mills — will be assisted on the ground in Walla Walla by a local advisory committee. The assistance will be much needed as the 40th annual event approaches May 9-11 and a number of important planning functions have yet to being.
“I’ve got 75 days to do what I would normally do in eight months,” an eager Scott Spencer said via telephone this morning.
By this time most years, the call for volunteers would have long been out, a design contest for posters and T-shirts would have started, pilot registrations would be rolling in and Chamber staff would be working to secure sponsors for every layer of the weekend event — from the opening reception to the final launch.
Those missing pieces had roused rumors that the Balloon Stampede may be in trouble long before Thursday’s announcement. Over the last couple of weeks speculation has run from a complete shutdown to a scaled-back version of the event.
Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer David Woolson said Thursday all of that was conjecture. He said the pieces for the new transition did not come together completely until nearly midnight Wednesday.
That it comes at the symbolic ruby anniversary may be even more telling. Signs point to the event being in the red.
Spencer said even with Gesa Credit Union’s sponsorship the number of balloons may be scaled back this year to half of the traditional 40, and then potentially build from there. But it’s not for a decline in interest from balloonists. Spencer said invitations to pilots were sent out at 12:25 a.m. today. By 6:30 a.m., 27 balloonists had already responded.
The financing provided allows for pilots to receive a “very modest” gas money allowance and funds to cover three nights in a hotel. Beyond that, the behind-the-scenes costs have mounted.
Liability insurance has increased dramatically, Spencer said. With the cold weather on the East Coast, propane reserves have been sent there, resulting in soaring fuel prices for balloonists. The $5.99/gallon wholesale rate that Spencer faced isn’t expected to last through May. But it makes it nearly impossible to budget for the Stampede.
“If it wasn’t for Gesa we’d be having a very different conversation,” Spencer said.
Woolson said the idea of finding another operator has been discussed for years by the Chamber board. The search for a successor became more serious after last year’s Stampede.
“There were some initial issues around financing and our limited resources on moving this thing forward. The discussion really came down to — as far as is this the right role for the Chamber — should we look for a transition for it,” he said.
In a notice to Chamber members Thursday, Woolson said the free community event goes on without public funding and typically takes seven months to organize with help from more than 250 volunteers, including the Chamber staff.
“This was not a sudden decision,” he said.
Tom Scribner, Chamber board chairman, said in a news release that the organization wants the event to continue but that it “has been increasingly difficult to focus on our core mission and produce the Stampede.” The Chamber’s core function, he said, is “a broad mission to build a strong local economy and advocate for local businesses.”
Woolson said the change is all part of the evolution of the event that started in 1974 with four balloons in a wheat field outside of Prescott and grew into a three-day event under the Chamber’s coordination.
“This is another in a line of changes over 40 years,” Woolson said. “The core of it remains the same: This is about the skies of Walla Walla being filled with balloons on Mother’s Day weekend.”
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8321.