It was, indeed, a perfect storm.
A huge crowd, a network of packed local roads and a wicked display by Mother Nature all combined to wash out the highly-anticipated Balloon Glow event at the Enumclaw Expo Center.
The Sept. 7 festivities were to feature a series of tethered hot-air balloons, dancing up and down and changing color, synchronized to a recorded soundtrack. Organizers had lined up food vendors, a kids’ area was organized and a bar was well stocked.
Then, all the careful planning disappeared in the blink of an eye – or, rather, in the flash of a lightning bolt.
Left scrambling were Enumclaw Expo and Events Association staffers and, in particular, executive director Rene Popke. Once things subsided a bit, she took the time to review the Balloon Glow effort, highlight what went right and lament what went wrong.
FIRST, THE GOOD NEWS
The Balloon Glow was a first-of-its-kind effort in Enumclaw. Unlike some of the activities taking place on the Expo Center grounds, this one was in the hands of the Expo Center; it wasn’t a case where the site is rented by an outside entity, like the popular Highland Games or Olympic Kennel Club shows.
The idea quickly caught on with the public, both for the uniqueness of the event and, perhaps, the $5 ticket. Through social media, organizers believed they had a hit. Popke said about 1,200 advance tickets were purchased, counting both single passes and family packages.
“It was just one of those events we thought we’d try,” Popke said, adding that initial hopes were for a crowd of maybe 1,500 at the most.
The news kept spreading, however, and the excitement grew.
THEN THE BAD NEWS
Hordes headed for the Expo Center, creating a traffic nightmare that extended into Buckley. A crowd that was impossible to count clogged state Route 410 through Enumclaw and turned Warner Avenue into a parking lot. With the Expo Center gates open, many were sitting idly in their automobiles, within striking distance but clearly unable to reach the Expo Center in a timely fashion.
The early arrivals made it onto the grounds and Popke figures there were perhaps 7,000 people in attendance when everything went haywire.
The weather slowly began to turn, with an electrically-charged storm chugging in from the west. All along, it had been advertised that the event would be scrapped in the event of inclement weather. These particular hot-air balloons are not designed for the rain; also, they’re not inflated if lightning is reported within a 30-mile radius.
“It just moved a lot quicker that we thought,” Popke said, referring to the surging storm front.
The word was quickly spread: the event was off. The announcement came at 7:01 p.m.
That exacerbated the already-nasty traffic snarl, as attendees started fleeing the Expo Center grounds while others – unaware that the show was called off – were still crawling toward the Expo Center.
Quickly, the emptying of the Expo Center intensified. Lightning moved over the region and a heavy rain pelted everything in site.
“It was just chaos,” Popke said.
WHAT COMES NEXT?
Organizers have locked in a date and are planning a Balloon Glow for 2020. But some things will be done differently.
First, Popke said, is the date. September is out, replaced by the last Saturday in August, the 29th.
Second, “we’ll definitely have a traffic-control plan in place,” Popke said. This year, staff had coordinated with local police but the situation simply overwhelmed all available resources.
Another possibility being considered is limiting the number of tickets sold.
“It was exciting to see the massive interest,” Popke said, returning to the positives surrounding this year’s aborted attempt.
And, while it’s not something she enjoys talking about, the Expo Center still made money on Balloon Glow 2019. “You feel bad, you hate to say it,” Popke said, but profits outweighed expenses. All the marketing efforts clearly stated it was a weather-dependent event and no refunds would be issued, she said.