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Week of balloon events a cash cow for East Texas cities

By Richard Yeakley
July 20, 2013 at 11 p.m.

Balloons soaring over Gregg County this week won't just fill the skies - they'll help fill area cash registers.

Tourists and trade associated with two major balloon competitions this week will boost sales tax revenues by about $62,900, officials said, with more than $400,000 in sales, research shows.

The week-long fiesta includes the 36th Great Texas Balloon Race and the second year in Longview for the the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship. Both draw competitors, pilots, crews and balloon fans from across the nation. Each of those represents food, lodging and other sales.

"The balloon race has always been a big tourist draw for the city," said Longview Mayor Jay Dean. "Now that we are actually the national finals, that has just enhanced those tourism dollars."

The economic impacts are seen across the city, but some of the biggest are for area hotels that are booked up weeks and months in advance.

Larry Williams, regional operations manager for USi Management, which oversees three Longview hotels, said he sees a tremendous impact from reservations during balloon week - and not just in Longview.

"We fill up most of that entire week with a mixture of the balloonists themselves and crews, but we are seeing more and more of the people coming in from the outside," Williams said. "Those tourists that we see are what Longview would want to see."

<h3>Hotels get a boost</h3>

He added that hotels he operates in Tatum and Carthage also get a boost during balloon week, showing that the balloon competitions affect not only Gregg County but also surrounding East Texas county economies.

This past year, after the city of Longview attracted the national competition for the first year of a three-year run in the city, a LeTourneau University professor with assistance from students and the city estimated the impact of out-of-state dollars during the week.

Of the 6,831 attendees Friday and 7,935 attendees Saturday of the Great Texas Balloon Race, the research showed, more than 800 were out-of-state visitors and almost 500 were out-of-state participants. The total economic impact from out-of-state visitors alone for the 2012 events was between $61,905 and $87,571, the researchers found.

Gai Bennett, publicity and media director for the Great Texas Balloon Race, said that while the event's total impact on the economy was difficult to measure, it could not be denied.

<h3>More than 50 pilots</h3>

"We provide the hotel for the pilot and a crew chief," Bennett said. This year, 54 pilots will compete in the U.S. Nationals and another 22 pilots in the Great Texas Balloon Race.

"A lot of them bring mom and dad and kids and they pay for that themselves. If you are an out of towner, you definitely stay in a hotel and an RV site, and there a huge number of people that bring in their own beverages or picnics, which they usually buy from local stores," Bennett said.

This year, the Great Texas Balloon Race is closing from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, partly to encourage fans to travel into Longview or other area cities to buy food or shop before events kick off again Saturday evening.

Longview is not the only city looking to capitalize on the migration of hot air balloonists.

In 2012, Kilgore instituted a Kilgore Day, which included events for pilots and a celebration and meet and greet in the evening for pilots and visitors in downtown, City Manager Scott Sellers said.

While Sellers did not know if any out-of-town balloon watchers stayed in his city's hotels because of Kilgore Day, he did say area hotel managers have mentioned the boon the event brought.

"Some of our hotels are closer (to East Texas Regional Airport, where many events are conducted) than some Longview hotels; so, it is a fairly quick trip," Sellers said.

The impact of the event is so profound that the city's Convention and Visitor's Bureau this year has determined to complete a comprehensive impact study during the competition week.

Margie Harris, tourism services manager, said volunteers have undergone training to learn how to gather responses to surveys that will be distributed throughout the two competitions.



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