Balloon Fest grounded ... for now

Commissioners say wait until next year

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The Harnett County Board of Commissioners has come to a decision regarding hosting the Freedom Balloon Fest over Memorial Day weekend, for now the answer is no.

The topic was the first thing on the agenda for their Tuesday morning work session.

The decision came after debate about the use of county resources, namely fire, EMS and sheriff’s deputies, as well as a lack of parking and the traffic congestion which would come about at Harnett Central Middle School, where fest organizers had planned to host the event.

“I hate that we can’t do this, that we didn’t have the time or a little bit more organization on this thing,” Commissioner Joe Miller said. “I think it would be a great boost for Harnett County.”

He said it would provide a positive for the county and shed a brighter light on the county.

“Every time you see something in the news about Harnett County, it’s ugly,” Commissioner Miller said. “It’d be nice to see something and put Harnett County in a good light.”

Organizers presented a proposal for what they called a scaled down version for 2019, ahead of a larger event in 2020 and beyond.

“They sent us an email and they’ve scaled it back,” County Manager Paula Stewart told the board. “This year they only planned to do the Field of Flags mission, they may have a few balloons go up, but it won’t be the big event they usually have in Fuquay because they don’t have time.”

Mrs. Stewart told the commissioners in addition to wanting Harnett County to host in 2019, she said they hoped to form a more permanent relationship.

“They would like to create a host community relationship,” she said. “They’d like to do something small this year and then next year have it full scale.”

Despite the proposed smaller event, the commissioners were in agreement on the fact the amount of time to prepare for such an undertaking needed more than just two or three months to complete.

Commissioner Howard Penny expressed his concern on how the area around or near the school could handle the different aspects needed to host an event, even if it is scaled down as organizers say it would be for this year.

In documents sent to the board prior to the meeting, organizers said they would need 20 to 40 acres of empty land for parking alone, something Commissioner Penny said was not viable or attainable.

“As I pointed out the other day, agriculturally, farmers are farming that time of year,” he said. “You’re talking about May, they’re not going to have an empty field sitting to stage that many cars.”

In addition to the commissioner’s concerns, EMS Director Larry Smith said his department would be stretched thin to provide needed coverage.

Additionally, Mr. Smith said the Angier Black River Fire Department, which is the fire district Harnett Central Middle Schools sits, could not provide coverage by itself, if at all.

Mr. Smith said there would need to be a fire engine on the site of the fest for the entire four days, leaving Angier Black River, who Commissioner Chairman Gordon Springle said was never asked to cover the fest, short of apparatus.

“Some of the issues from the EMS perspective, too is we can’t handle it,” he said. “Even with the number (of guests) scaled back, I’m concerned about the number of folks that would still attend just based on they know it’s part of the balloon fest even though it’s scaled back.”

Mr. Smith also expressed concern about how it would affect N.C. 210 and the traffic using it, both emergency and non-emergency, including the safety of pedestrians who would park along the road and then walk to the venue.

“The parking will be pretty much left up to whoever wants to provide a field or a front yard for parking,” he said. “That could be an issue. We’re worried about the 210 highway and walking down that road. Because the event organizers don’t provide any transportation from the parking lots to the venue, they’re just going to have people walking up and down 210, and that concerns us a lot.”

He also stressed how overtime for four days for his staff would also put the county at a disadvantage.

“Staffing wise with EMS, I’d have to bring some folks in for overtime,” he said. “And that’s four days of overtime crews. And right now we’re kind of shorthanded as it is. We’ve got some open paramedic positions.”

Sheriff Wayne Coats would face similar challenges in providing staff for parking and other needed security. He said he wouldn’t be in favor of taking deputies off the road to take care of the needs at the fest.

“I don’t have the manpower to bring men off the road,” he said. “If I bring in three men to handle it, then the county’s short.”

He also said he was not comfortable telling deputies they had to work the fest instead of scheduled time off for their families.

“If I have to bring anybody in it’s going to be off-duty officers, if I can find any of them that want to come in and cancel their plans,” he said. “They’re going to have to be compensated. You can’t just ask them to come in on their days off away from their family or cancel their vacations or weekends off.”

Mrs. Stewart said she was uncertain if the commissioners not approving the fest for 2019 would have a lingering effect with organizers.

She told the panel they wanted to have a long-term agreement with the county for the fest, but at a different location.

However, with that unclear, the panel is willing to work with organizer to find an alternatives site, just not in 2019.

“We were thinking, if you want to do it, we feel like the soonest our staff could do it would be next year,” Mrs. Stewart said. “Simply for the time crunch and not really having time to pick a better location.”

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