Special-shape balloons are always a big hit at The Ohio Challenge Balloon Festival, which will be held on Friday, July 19 and Saturday, July 20. With close to 25 balloons on site, this year’s special shapes will include Bila the Polar Bear, Neptuno the Seahorse and Owlbert Einstein. CONTRIBUTED

Middletown’s iconic hot air balloon festival overcomes rocky year to return this week

After a 90 percent attendance drop at last year’s washout due to heavy rains, organizers also had to resolve sponsorship issues when Selection.com withdrew as presenting sponsor and parking issues because of new rules.

John Hart II, who owns Selection.com and Start Skydiving, notified Ohio Challenge organizers of the decision, which was the result of a contractual dispute with the city of Middletown and its manager at the Middletown Regional Airport.

MORE: Middletown’s major hot air balloon event working to rebound from losing sponsor and last year’s washout

Hart expressed his frustrations about contractual issues and airport manager Daniel Dickten to city officials and festival organizers adding that his company had been a key sponsor of the event, contributing more than $250,000 over the previous five years.

However, Hart told this news outlet last August it was possible the sponsorship could resume in the future.

Dickten also notified festival organizers that that there would be no more vehicle parking allowed inside the airport fences for the event. He had expressed concerns about complying with Federal Aviation Administration regulations and guidance on airport closings, and the city is planning to build its new Education Hangar in that space.

According to event organizers, the 2017 Ohio Challenge generated an estimated direct economic impact of $2 million to $2.5 million. Organizers said the event attracts an average of 50,000 to 55,000 people, with about 50 percent of the visitors from Butler and Warren counties. About 94 percent of the visitors are from Ohio.

MORE: Middletown OKs grant, airport parking for major balloon event

Following several meetings between festival organizers and city officials, Middletown City Council approved a $25,000 grant in late November snf Dickten developed a plan to keep half of the taxiway open with a different configuration for 2019. However a new plan would have to be developed for 2020 and beyond for parking, city officials said.

“Corporate sponsorship has been strong this year,” said David Pearce, event treasurer and longtime volunteer. “It has helped to cushion the loss of our major sponsor.”

After last year’s washout, Pearce said the 31 food vendors who were at the 2018 event are all coming back for 2019.

“We learned how important sponsorships are to the event,” Pearce said. “Sponsorships are the lifeblood of the event. While we have never taken it for granted, we were certainly reminded and appreciative of our sponsors to the event.”

MORE: Future of popular Middletown event topic of council meeting today

Pearce said relations between the city and the event have also improved over the past year. City Manager Doug Adkins agreed about the improved relations.

“(I’m) excited to attend this year’s festival and I hope the weather cooperates this year,” Adkins said. “We’ve had a great partnership this year with ongoing and productive communication at every step along the way.”

Pearce said this year’s event will also be more interactive and family friendly and will not focus on competitions. Unlike past years, when balloonists took off each day for competitive events, there will only be one competitive event this year, on Saturday morning.

MORE: Balloon festival organizers, city talk through parking issues

“Our pilots have seen better ways to interact with the public,” he said. “There will be a greater focus on local pilots and getting more people on the ground to entertain them instead of competing.”

MORE: Company withdraws Ohio Challenge sponsorship due to airport dispute

This year, there will be 26 hot air balloons participating at the balloon glows on Friday and Saturday nights, and at least three balloons will be available for tethered balloon rides only.

Pearce said organizers have been working with the Middletown Visitors Bureau to increase their social media presence, which has already seen a large increase in Facebook interactions.

“We’re really upbeat about the changes,” he said. “If the weather is like today (Wednesday), it will be a terrific weekend.”

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