The Scarecrow balloon is inflated, though it did not launch, Aug. 19, 2023, at the Great Falls Balloon Festival held in Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston. Organizers on Wednesday canceled the 2024 event, but city officials are trying to step in and help keep the festival afloat. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal file

LEWISTON — While organizers of the Great Falls Balloon Festival consider a proposal from the city to help keep this year’s festival afloat, a board member said sponsorships and other needs are “nowhere near” the typical level compared to previous years.

Deb Leonard, vice president of the festival’s board of directors, said the board has received the city’s proposal and will hold an emergency meeting to go over the details. She said they will only respond after “all voting members of the board have had a chance to read, digest and discuss the proposal.”

On Wednesday, city leaders quickly put together an offer to partner with festival organizers after the board announced early Wednesday they were canceling the 2024 edition due to a “series of challenges and unforeseen circumstances.”

Organizers said they had struggled to secure volunteers, sponsors and other vendors for the popular three-day festival in August.

When asked Friday if the board had an estimate of the gaps that need to be filled in order to pull off a 2024 event, Leonard said, “I’d love to say the gap was small, however we were nowhere near our sponsorships compared to this time in years past.”

“Realistically, we don’t know what the specific ‘gaps’ are until we get closer to the event and start securing and confirming,” she said.

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Great Falls Balloon Festival volunteer Albert County hangs a string of lights in one of the tents Aug. 17, 2023, at Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston. Organizers on Wednesday canceled the 2024 event, but city officials are trying to step in and help keep the festival afloat. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file

Leonard said on average the festival costs between $100,000 to $150,000 to put on each year, and that it relies on several sponsorships in the form of in-kind donations. In addition, the festival has 11 monetary sponsorship levels.

As for volunteers, Leonard said, “In a perfect world, we can successfully and safely operate with 75-100 volunteers, covering various positions throughout the entire weekend, from setup to takedown.”

When announcing the cancellation Wednesday, board President Tracy Collins said issues ranged from a lack of volunteers to planning difficulties like procuring security and reserving portable toilets.

The cancellation was met with a massive response on social media, and city officials worked quickly to offer support for arguably Lewiston’s largest tourist draw of the year.

The event typically attracts 100,000 people over the weekend, and the economic impact to the cities is estimated to be in excess of $2 million annually. It’s also known as a significant fundraising opportunity for local nonprofits.

According to Nate Libby, Lewiston’s assistant economic development director, the city’s proposal to the festival board offers planning, logistics and administrative functions. Libby declined to provide further details on the proposal until after the city receives a response.

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Last year, the city’s in-kind support for the festival, which includes police, public works and the use of Simard-Payne Memorial Park, totaled $17,605. This year, $13,402 is budgeted, but that figure was approved prior to the city’s offer to partner with the festival.

City administration said Friday that if the partnership goes forward, the city would use festival revenue to cover its costs and payments to nonprofits, and remaining revenue would stay with the festival.

The crew of the Sunrise Passion balloon works together Aug. 18, 2023, to inflate it at Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston. Organizers on Wednesday canceled the 2024 event, but city officials are trying to step in and help keep the festival afloat. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal file

Libby said the balloon festival can be profitable if sufficient effort and planning is put into it, and that the city’s approach right now is to work with the festival board to “figure out this year,” and then put it in the “best possible position” heading into next year.

When asked if the city would consider taking over the festival for a year if the board declines the city’s offer, Angelynne Amores, director of marketing and communications, said, “The city’s commitment to the success and continuity of the Great Falls Balloon Festival remains steadfast, and we are dedicated to exploring all avenues to ensure its prosperity.”

The festival, which according to its bylaws is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, has seen some financial struggles in the past.

According to Maine’s Bureau of Corporations, Elections and Commissions, the Great Falls Balloon Festival Inc. failed to file an annual report in June of 2019, but filed it July 2 shortly after it received notice. In June the following year, a notice of failure to file an annual report was sent and the nonprofit was administratively dissolved in September 2020 for failing to file that report.

There were no festivals held in 2020 and 2021; the festival returned in 2022.

In May 2023, the nonprofit’s corporation status was reinstated when a required annual report was filed.

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