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September 3, 2013

Balloon fest draws crowds to Neahwa

By Jessica Reynolds Contributing Writer
The Daily Star

---- — You can’t steer a hot air balloon, and you certainly can’t plan for a storm. As dark clouds and bolts of lightning filled the sky Saturday afternoon over Neahwa Park, the second night of the Susquehanna Balloon Glow Festival almost did not happen. 

But by 6 p.m., the rain had been replaced by bursts of fire from propane tanks and colorful nylon balloons, and the park began to fill with people. Food vendors selling Italian ice, French fries and fried dough set up near the City of the Hills stage, where Riverside Theory kicked off a free concert featuring local bands. 

The festival is in its sixth year in Oneonta. Mike Ranieri, “Balloon Meister” of the event, said after managing similar balloon festivals in Greene County, he moved back to the area and decided Oneonta would be a nice place to start one.

“I love it,” Ranieri said of his vocation. “You get to travel and meet some really nice people.” 

Ten hot air balloon pilots, from New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, New York and elsewhere, set up around the lawn on Saturday, answering questions and letting children climb into the hanging baskets, called gondolas, that carry riders below the balloons.

The “balloon glow” began around 8 p.m., when four brightly colored balloons were inflated and lit up by flaming jets. Spectators watched as the tethered colorful orbs swayed back and forth, lighting up the darkness. Large colorful puppets were paraded around by volunteers from the Phoenix House, who can be found at many First Night Oneonta events.

Carol Mandigo, co-chairwoman of First Night Oneonta and employee at LEAF Council on Alcoholism and Addictions, was heavily involved in the planning of the two day event. She said Friday night’s activities went well, which included live string-band music, family activities by Body by Stacy, as well as balloon rides and food vendors.

“This is the second balloon festival that LEAF and First Night Oneonta have been a part of, and it has been just great,” Mandigo said Saturday night.

Julie Dostal, executive director at LEAF, said she was especially thankful for the support of Oneonta police in making events such as the balloon festival possible.

“A lot of people think that events like these cannot be successful without alcohol, and yet we have all worked together to create this movement in Oneonta where families can come to these events and have fun together, and it is working!” Dostal said.

Among those having fun on Saturday was Xiolynn Delarosa, a State University College at Oneonta sophomore who said she was especially excited for the balloon glow.

“I’ve always wanted to see a hot air balloon, ever since I was little,” Delarosa said. “The rain almost stopped me from coming, but I was determined to see one. I’m from the city and you don’t see things like this down there. It’s beautiful.”

At Julie Ann’s Gourmet Italian Sausage stand, vendor Julie Ann Goodrich of Greene was back for a second balloon festival. 

“We love coming because everyone is so polite and nice,” Goodrich said. “The entertainment is great, too! We’ll be back.”

As Sgt. Peppers Phony Hearts Club Band shook up the crowd with their Beatles covers, the balloons were slowly deflated and put away.

“It’s been great,” Ranieri proclaimed as he rushed to help take down a balloon at the end of the night. “Anyone who doesn’t like a balloon ride is a stick in the mud!”