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Longtime Fiesta vendors feel loss, but support calling 2020 event off

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The Owl Balloon peers out from inflating balloons at the 2018 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.(Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The announcement last month that the 2020 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta had been called off came as no surprise to Josh Lange.

“I was very ready for it and I was very accepting,” said Lange, whose Albuquerque lemonade company Just Squeezed is a regular vendor at the event.

Josh Lange started La Luz Coffee Hub at 1115 Griegos NW in late March to make up for anticipated lost business from his lemonade company Just Squeezed, which relies heavily on serving visitors at major events like Bonnaroo, Coachella and the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

Lange’s company is largely event-based and relies on revenue from massive music festivals across the country, including Coachella in California and Bonnaroo in Tennessee.

After those festivals were canceled, Lange said he knew it was just a matter of time before the Balloon Fiesta followed suit.

Levi O’Neil holds up a screen for the customer to pay for their order July 7 at La Luz Coffee Hub. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

“The ripple effect is pretty nauseating,” he said. “The whole thing is pretty nauseating.”

So Lange made a quick pivot to survive. In late March, he opened up La Luz Coffee Hub at 1115 Griegos NW, using supplies from Just Squeezed.

He said the outpouring of support from neighborhood locals has “amazing,” and much needed.

Chris Shaw hands off a drink to a customer at La Luz Coffee Hub. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

“It allows us to not get into trouble and it allows us to not lose our company,” he said.

Lange’s not the only local business owner who will feel the pain from the postponement of what would have been the 49th annual Balloon Fiesta this year. The fiesta is a major economic driver for the region.

A view of the Plano Pin Co. booth from inside of a hot air balloon basket at a past Balloon Fiesta. (Courtesy of Plano Pin Co.)

An economic impact study commissioned by event organizers and produced by Forward Analytics showed the 2019 event had a total impact of about $187 million dollars. The study found guests at the fiesta spend an average of $31 at vendor booths – and with 866,414 visitors to the event in 2019, that number adds up.

The economic impact isn’t limited to fiesta vendors and the city of Albuquerque though. According to Visit Albuquerque president and CEO Tania Armenta, spending for the event extends across the state as many tourists in town for the fiesta also travel outside Albuquerque.

“It’s long been a reliable season for tourism,” Armenta said.

Vendors adapt

Businesses and nonprofits that rely on the Balloon Fiesta to make ends meet said not having the event this year will hurt, but mainly supported organizers’ decision to hold off this year.

While the fiesta only represents a small portion of Just Squeezed’s yearly revenue compared to the music festivals, the money is still needed, Lange said.

“The income is really important especially now when our income has gone to zero, we could really use the Balloon Fiesta,” Lange said. “The Balloon Fiesta could help me pay for my home.”

Visitors at a past Balloon Fiesta browse a selection of pins at the Plano Pin Co. booth.

Still, Lange said he ultimately supports the postponement for financial and safety reasons.

“If they tried to pull it off at 50% capacity we would just break even,” he said. “It would hurt us financially.”

For the New Mexico Quilters Association, a nonprofit, the fiesta typically provides much-needed income. For 40 years, the association has been making a one-of-a-kind quilt to raffle off. Proceeds from the raffle support the organization, which then uses the money to purchase supplies for hundreds of quilts that are donated to local organizations like Carrie Tingley Hospital and the Barrett House shelter.

“It is our major fundraiser,” fundraising coordinator Ilene Edgein said.

Although the raffle brings in the most revenue for the group, Edgein said the group will be able to dip into savings in order to purchase supplies for their next quilt.

“My Beautiful Balloon,” the New Mexico Quilters Association’s 2020 Balloon Fiesta Raffle Quilt, was designed by Karen Barrett of Albuquerque. The quilt takes a full year for association members to make, starting with the design. Since Balloon Fiesta has been called off this year, the 2020 quilt will be sold as a fundraiser in 2021.

Britt-Lee Smith, sales manager of Texas-based custom pin manufacturer Plano Pin Co., said she has been attending the event for close to 35 years, and while the fiesta brings in some dependable revenue, it’s also a chance to celebrate and visit old friends.

“I don’t know what else to do when I’m not at the Balloon Fiesta, but we’ll be okay,” Smith said. “… I know it’s the right thing to do, but I’m going to miss everybody.”

Each year the company sells “thousands and thousands” of pins at the fiesta including the official fiesta pin, but production for the pins doesn’t start until August.

“Thankfully, the announcement did come early, so we did not lose a lot in investing in our merchandise,” Smith said.

She said it will be an unusual October without the event.

“My car might try to go on autodrive for Albuquerque.” Smith said.

For several years the Plano Pin Co. has been making Breaking Bad themed pins for the Balloon Fiesta. Despite this year’s event being called off, the company is still releasing limited edition Breaking Bad pins with a coronavirus theme.(Courtesy of Plano Pin Co.)

Leaders of Blake’s Lotaburger don’t expect the absence of Balloon Fiesta this year to cause a huge financial dent – but missing the celebration is still a disappointment, said marketing director Alice Skousen.

“We just feel a loss overall to not have that event that we look forward to,” she said. The company operates a stand on the fiesta grounds selling breakfast burritos.

Skousen said it makes sense to call off this year’s event rather than potentially place New Mexicans and tourists in harm’s way.

“You don’t want to endanger people for something that can be postponed,” she said.

Balloons take to the sky during the 2018 Balloon Fiesta.(Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

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