Mother Nature couldn’t have picked a worse weekend to cut short Maine’s August late-summer break from wet weather. But while the balloons remained grounded, spirits soared for some attending the 17th annual Great Falls Balloon Festival in the Twin Cities this weekend.

“What’s the worst that could happen? So we get a little wet,” said Tim Cassidy, 47, of Auburn, sitting under an umbrella watching Elvis impersonator Robert Washington of Auburn perform Sunday evening. “We never made it a point to come out just for the balloons.”

Cassidy and Janet Mathieu, 41, also of Auburn, said they brought their children to the event to support the local nonprofits and organizations raising money, as well as to take part in all the other events going on during the festival. While both agreed that seeing the balloons would have been nice, they said the bigger thing for them was that their children had fun and, Janet laughed, that they got bloomin’ onions.

Festival organizers said that early estimates put the festival draw at about 75,000 people. That number is down from the 100,000 people making their way to the event in the past. Also new this year, organizers asked for donations at the gate as a way to help offset cost for the festival. Totals were not available as of Sunday evening, but festival treasurer Mell Hamlyn said people were being very generous.

“I think we’re all a little disappointed, but it’s beyond our control. The weather just didn’t cooperate with us,” said Ann Dehetre-Arsenault, president of the 2009 Great Falls Balloon Festival. “We were really hoping for a great weekend.”

Dehetre-Arsenault and other organizers agreed that the weekend’s bad weather hurt the festival from the perspective that only one of the five scheduled launches was a go. Organizers plan one last launch Monday morning at 6 a.m. for 12 balloons that remained in town of the 28 balloons that came for the festival.

Also postponed were two very special balloon rides for Patrice Lewis, 57, formerly of Lewiston who now lives in Deer Isle, and John McDonald, 93, of Portland, both residents of nursing facilities. The two dreamed of one day riding in a hot air balloon and that dream was scheduled to launch during this weekend’s festival, thanks to Live Your Dreams, a program developed by the Maine Health Care Association to help older residents living in nursing facilities fulfill life-long dreams and goals.

“We will reschedule the rides with two local pilots who will take them up in the next couple weeks,” said Hamlyn. “When we made the calls to the sponsors, they were all eager to help.”

Hamlyn said that several sponsors donated their balloon rides, which cost $200 per person, to make enough rides possible for both Lewis and McDonald to also take along one caregiver and one family member.

And while festival goers tried to keep their spirits high despite Sunday afternoon’s rain, nonprofits and organizations selling food at the event felt the sting of the weekend’s bad weather. Kate Cornelio, one of several volunteers manning the St. Dominic Regional High School Boosters barbecue booth, said the rain certainly had an impact on sales over the weekend.

“It’s really too bad. It’s one of the biggest fundraisers for the
boosters every year, and it’s been pretty bad,” Cornelio said of the
lagging sales, adding that she felt bad for the festival organizers.

Normally averaging sales of 100 dinners per day over the course of three days, Cornelio said this year’s sales suffered Friday due to the festival being closed because of the thunderstorms and Sunday due to the rain. Saturday was the only day the booster club reached sales of 100.

“It’s just the weather. People come to see the balloons, and the balloons aren’t going, so they turn around and leave,” said Greg O’Connell, another volunteer at the St. Dominic barbecue booth.

Sandwiched in between the bad weather Friday night and Sunday afternoon, most agreed that Saturday’s activities went off without a hitch and that thousands made their way downtown for the event.

“This only happens once a year, and it’s pretty cool for this little town,” said Amanda Alberda, winner of this year’s festival theme contest.

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