By Jordan Cohen

For the past two decades, Lexington’s skyline on the Fourth of July has been decorated with a colorful display of hot air balloons. But this summer, Lexington’s Sunrise Rotary will focus its attention on another soaring spectacle.

For the first time in 20 years, Lexington’s Sunrise Rotary will opt not to fly balloons, hosting instead the July Fourth Fireworks and Festival.

“[The balloon rally] is the signature event of Rockbridge County,” said Matt Hayden, president of Lexington’s Sunrise Rotary. But he’s hopeful residents will embrace a new tradition.

The cost and general maintenance of hot air balloons influenced the Sunrise Rotary’s decision to no longer offer the rides

“Lexington is a very tough place to fly balloons on the Fourth of July,” Hayden said.

Balloons like this have dotted the sky of Lexington every Fourth of July for decades. (Photo by Claudette Artwick)

Sweltering July temperatures often made it difficult for the balloons to take off.

Many flights were cancelled because of unfavorable weather conditions on the day of the rally, disappointing customers and requiring Sunrise Rotary to refund money to those who had pre-paid for rides.

“It became the largest single customer complaint about the Fourth of July weekend,” said Hayden.

In addition to the difficulty of flying the balloons, the cost of the rides also deterred people. Each ride costs around $220 per person.

Hayden said only about half of the people paying for balloon rides were Lexington residents, and even then “almost nobody rode the balloons.”

Initially, he proposed tethered rides, in which a balloon rises only about 100 feet from the ground, as a possible solution for the cost issues and the weather concerns.

Ultimately, however, pilots who would provide a tethered ride were scarce. Hayden said the problem is that tethered rides cause the balloon two-and-a-half times the wear and tear of a normal balloon ride.

“We could not get even one pilot to offer tethered rides,” Hayden said.

This summer, the Sunrise Rotary’s Fourth Fireworks and Festival will feature several bands, including both local and national musicians, as well as two performances by the Wannabeatles, a Beatles cover band composed of multi-Grammy award winning producers and songwriters.

Local residents celebrated past July Fourth holidays on Virginia Military Institute’s Parade Ground. (Photo provided by the Lexington Sunrise Rotary Club)

“They’re just fantastic,” said Pat Mayerchak, a member of Sunrise Rotary. “I’ve never seen anything like them.”

How the holiday event changeup will affect the city’s summer tourism still remains up in the air.

“Until we have figures of who attends this year, we really don’t know what impact it will have, although we do expect [an impact],” said Marie Plank, Lexington Visitor Services manager.

According to Hayden, the July Fourth event generates significant revenue for the Sunrise Rotary, which has raised more than $150,000 for local nonprofits since 2003.

As the event draws near, Hayden says he understands the nostalgia surrounding the balloon rally, but he believes the new event will be “much more accessible and a lot more fun for everyone.”

Plank said she’s sad to see the end of a long-standing tradition, but also is excited for the change.

“It’s unfortunate, but we look forward to something new that can make this place even more vital.”

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