This weekend’s balloon festival has the potential to teach us some important lessons in community development. We learn first that success relies on good planning and teamwork to manage logistics and many moving parts. And second, that even with all I’s dotted and T’s crossed, outside forces can still throw a wrench in the works and impact the outcome.

While becoming routine on the social calendars since its 1992 founding, managing the Great Falls Balloon Festival is anything but routine. Determining the best locations for food booths and ensuring all organizations and supplies are in order, siting entertainment and securing needed equipment, and putting together marketing materials and laying out coherent directions to access the amenities are just part the long list of logistics.

Even writing an outline like that oversimplifies it. For food vendors, there are dozens of nonprofits, each looking to leverage this event to raise needed funds to operate for the year. While they will surely compete with each other for customers, they share one common trait: They rely on a successful balloon festival to raise any money at all.

Locations for music and other entertainment has a direct relationship to food locations. Visitors are going to get hungry and making it as convenient as possible for them to partake of the vendors makes sense. The complexity grows from there, as planners of the event must find a means to communicate with visitors how to find what they’re looking for.

To rconnect this to community development, can we envision a scenario of how a community could grow, or a business could be profitable, if there was no plan where enterprises are best located and what services they need to be successful? And further, if arts and culture were left to stand on their own, separated from intricate efforts to build vibrancy, what type of ripple effect might that have to both businesses and visitors or residents?

In the 17 years since the founding of the balloon festival, there have been significant changes in the layout of Lewiston-Auburn, especially downtown. Given that the festival is predominantly concentrated in the downtown, it is worth focusing the discussion there.

While the ideal for me would be for both Lewiston and Auburn to create one downtown master plan, it was a significant step forward over a decade ago for both cities to embark on planning for revitalizing this central area of our community. And the outcome?

In focusing on how the downtown could be the best place for restaurants and taverns, we’ve yielded a brewpub, great seafood and Italian and a French bistro.

In the area of entertainment, this community now boasts an over 400-seat performance hall in the former St. Mary’s Church, a renovated Public Theater, and more than a handful of art galleries dot the downtown. Add to that, the numerous outdoor concert venues like Courthouse and Festival plazas and Fountain Park at the Bates Mill and the area has a flavor that would make it unrecognizable to those who have visited in the last decade.

And the marketing of the community, and ease of movement for residents and visitors, is a far cry from yesteryear. LA: It’s Happening Here would have been the opening line of a derogatory joke some 20 years ago. Today, it is typically followed with a fast fact about economic growth and why stopping in Lewiston-Auburn is worth the trip.

With hundreds of thousands of people descending on the community in the early 1990s, only a couple of parking garages existed on the landscape. Today, more than a handful of mass parking locations exist, with many nearby well landscaped sidewalks or trails creating an inviting path to reach their destinations.

Good weather is typically an indication of a successful balloon festival. Clouds or a chance of rain can put a damper on launches, but rarely on the excitement of enjoying the community. As hard as you try, you can’t control the weather.

There are forces outside of Lewiston-Auburn, state and federal policies, the national economy, and on, that can put a damper on our growth. But we can’t necessarily control those either.

What we can control is sitting back and looking at how much we have changed, for the better in the last 20 years; a Lewiston-Auburn home to fine downtown restaurants, a beautiful riverfront lined with trails, boat access and cultural spaces and a brand known around the state as a positive force for economic development.

So let’s stay excited about what a great place this is to live, work and play, and get out to enjoy this community this weekend, and any other chance you get

Jonathan LaBonte, of New Auburn, is a columnist for the Sun Journal and an Androscoggin County Commissioner. E-mail: [email protected].


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