Balloon Rodeo’s future in air |

Balloon Rodeo’s future in air

Festival's site slated for a resort housing development

The Balloon Rodeo that has become a fixture in Steamboat Springs’ summer resort calendar will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2005. But it isn’t clear whether it will be around for its 26th “Rainbow Weekend.”

The hay meadow at the corner of Pine Grove and Mount Werner roads, where the event always has been held, is scheduled to undergo development, perhaps as soon as 2006. Finding a site as ideally suited as Wildhorse Meadows will be a challenge, organizers say.

“I see the rodeo going on at least a few more years,” longtime balloon pilot Marty Pearlman said this week. “But I see it being different as far as the structure of it.”

Pearlman, the former owner of Balloons Over Steamboat commercial ballooning company, has served on the Balloon Rodeo committee for 20 years and is in his second season as “balloon meister.” That role involves coordinating pilots and making certain everything is cool (or perhaps, hot) with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Pearlman expected 43 hot air balloons to begin inflating Saturday morning just as the sun kissed the freshly mowed hay meadow. In the future, he said, it’s possible the balloons may launch from smaller clusters scattered within a mile of the base of the ski area. But there’s also a real chance they may not inflate at all.

Chamber Executive Vice President Sandy Evans Hall said she intends to begin to focus soon on finding an alternative site for the Balloon Rodeo but added that all of the sites that come to mind have challenges.

“I think the balloons are a huge draw,” Evans Hall said. “I know it is one of a lot of people’s favorite events. We get calls in the winter — they’ll call you all year round. If we can hang onto it, that is our first priority.”

Whitney Ward, the principle developer of Wildhorse Meadows, said he expects to bring his resort housing project to the City Planning Department late this summer or early fall. The pace at which development will take place is uncertain. Evans Hall said in conversations with Ward that he has told her the site may become unavailable to the Balloon Rodeo as soon as 2006.

Pearlman said Ward has shown sensitivity to the importance of the event and that the working relationship this year has been strong.

“He’s been really cool with us,” Pearlman said.

There are multiple challenges in finding a suitable alternative site, the organizers say.

Pearlman said he thinks the desirability of having the ski mountain as a backdrop for the event shouldn’t be underestimated. He thinks the beauty of snapshots of the ascending balloons has as much to do with the appeal of the event for visitors as anything else.

“That’s what Steamboat is all about,” Pearlman said.

Chamber Resort Association public relations director Riley Polumbus agreed. She said the public relations team at the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. succeeds every year in placing photos in national newspapers and video on network TV affiliates across the country. The sheer visual appeal of the balloons against a mountain backdrop is what gets the images picked up by media outlets, she said.

The proximity of the ski area’s Meadows parking lot also is a big plus from a simple logistical standpoint.

Wildhorse Meadows is so close to the condos at the base of the ski area that weekend tourists can set their alarms and coffee makers for 6:30 a.m., then walk over to the launch site with sleepy-eyed children in pajamas and fleece jackets in tow.

The location has technical advantages for balloon pilots that aren’t necessarily visible to the average eye. Balloon pilots have long talked about the rare combination of winds aloft that make it possible to “fly the box,” at the base of the Steamboat Ski Area.

“After 20 years of flying this box — I can tell you this is an excellent area,” Pearlman said.

He is referring to the ability of balloon pilots to fly a roughly rectangular pattern and return very close to the point where the flight began. That can’t be done at many balloon festivals.

Because hot air balloons don’t have steering mechanisms per se, pilots seek out wind currents of varying directions at varying altitudes to maneuver. At the base of Mount Werner, pilots use cold air sinking off the mountain every morning, and specifically, rivers of cool air coming down the Burgess Creek and Fish Creek drainages to maneuver their crafts.

Pearlman said it’s not out of the question that desirable currents would be found at alternative sites, but there are no guarantees.

Pearlman said sponsor support for the Balloon Rodeo has been the best this year, and Jody Anagnos at the chamber has done an exceptional job of solving the logistical puzzle of the event.

However, Evans Hall said the Balloon Rodeo remains among the most challenging, in the economic sense, that the chamber hosts each year. Because the balloons are visible from all over the mountain base area, there’s really no way to charge admission to the event, Evans Hall pointed out. That means the chamber must rely on souvenir sales to offset $18,000 to $20,000 in event costs. Evans Hall worries that breaking the balloon ascension into a half-dozen smaller pods at multiple sites would dilute souvenir sales.

Pearlman acknowledged that the cost of insuring everything from the propane tanks that power the balloons aloft to horses in neighboring pastures and the balloons themselves went up about $3,000 this year.

The chamber foots the lodging bill for balloon pilots and their crews. Although it gets reduced rates, it pays in hard cash.

Even a veteran pilot such as Pearlman gets a charge out of the site of hot air balloons rising into the morning air. He confessed he returns to the hot air balloon festival in Albuquerque, N.M., every year, and every year underestimates how much film to bring for his camera. With the annual Balloon Festival in Snowmass defunct for lack of sponsorship, Pearlman said that focuses even more interest on Steamboat.

No one argues the Steamboat Balloon Rodeo isn’t popular. However, it appears popularity alone cannot keep it aloft.

Within two or three years, balloon enthusiasts should know whether Steamboat’s annual hot air affair will rise above the challenges, or simply deflate.

— To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail

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