Preparing for balloon festival is a high for head of board

Mark Donahue always has his head in the clouds during September.

Mark Donahue always has his head in the clouds during September.

As president of the Adirondack Balloon Festival’s board of directors, he helps organize the annual hot air balloon parties in Glens Falls and Queensbury.

He’s still working on this year’s gathering. The 41st edition of the festival, founded by the late Walter Grishkot, will be held Thursday until Sunday, Sept. 22.

The 42-year-old Donahue, who is president and chief executive officer of Community Work & Independence in Glens Falls — a company that provides services for the developmentally disabled — talks about getting a rise out of every balloon weekend.

Q: How long have you worked with the festival?

A: I’ve been involved with the event for 15 years and been president for the last three.

Q: How did you get involved in the first place?

A: I was born into it. I mean that. This festival started when I was 2 years old, and for all four of us kids, my mother started a scrapbook when we were very young. For me, the scrapbook was on the balloon festival. That scrapbook started a very strong balloon interest. When I was in elementary school, we started traveling to different ballooning events and I was learning to fly a balloon before I could drive a car.

Q: How tough has it been following Walt Grishkot?

A: Nobody can fill Walter’s shoes, that’s for sure. The event is gradually evolving and will continue to evolve. There’s a committee process and definitely has to be run as a not-for-profit business.

Q: And how tough is it to put the event together?

A: For one weekend, it takes a full year and even beyond a full year to plan it. There are probably about a dozen people now who commit a substantial amount of time, meetings, soliciting, going to other events, doing all kinds of stuff to pull things together. But it’s definitely a group effort these days. Next year’s planning has already started, if that tells you anything.

Q: Anything out of the ordinary planned for this year?

A: If all goes well, we’ll have the largest moon glow on the East Coast this year, on Saturday night, which will be pretty spectacular at the airport. Our goal is 40 balloons. We also have some debuts of some special-shaped balloons.

Q: Who pays for the festival?

A: Basically, it’s the community that pays for this event. We’re a not-for-profit, there’s no paid staff that puts on this event. It’s from small businesses all the way up to corporate partnerships. The corporate partners are like Cabot Cheese and Price Chopper all the way down to local restaurants and local retail establishments.

Q: How much does it cost?

A: Last year it was about $175,000.

Q: What’s your favorite part of the festival?

A: My favorite part actually is what happens before the festival. It’s the build-up to the festival that really makes it special because the whole week of the festival we bring balloons to the local schools and nursing homes, the day centers for the developmentally disabled. We bring the balloons to everyone who can’t come to the festival. To see the smiles on the faces of the elderly and the disabled, it just brings out the kid in everybody. For me, doing that is just as important and crucial as it is for the big event.

Q: Do you have a balloon?

A: I have three balloons today. I fly virtually every weekend I can from April to November, but sadly, I don’t get to fly in this event anymore. I’m just too busy, too mentally focused as an organizer and not as a pilot.

Q: Why do you think people keep coming back?

A: It’s a family event, it’s all about family, it’s generational. It brings smiles to 2-year-olds, it brings smiles to 90-year-olds, it’s something you can do with anybody of any age. It’s fun for everybody.

Q: Have there been any people who have put in a bunch of years with the festival?

A: My sister, Laurie Wetsel, has been with me on this ride since we were kids. She’s still actively involved, she does all the pilot registrations and helps with the pilot activities. We have some family friends who are very involved — Joan Grishkot is still involved to this day. She’s my sidekick in this venture and we do an awful lot together and she’s been here since day one.

Q: How about longtime balloonists?

A: We have people who have been here 35 years. Russ Barber from Stockport [near Hudson], he’s one of our longer-term ones. Tom Smith from the Poughkeepsie area is at 38 or 39 years. Bill Costen from Connecticut is well into his 30-plus years with us.

Q: You must have to worry about the weather every year. How do you manage that?

A: I’m telling everybody already that it’s going to rain every weekend until the festival, then it’s going to get sunny again. We can’t control the weather. We can put all the planning in place . . . we just do the best we can and keep our fingers crossed.

Categories: Life and Arts

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