LEWISTON — As it prepares for its 27th annual event, the Great Falls Balloon Festival is under new management.

Balloons take off from Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston during the 2018 Great Falls Balloon Festival. This year, the festival will be held from Aug. 16-18. Sun Journal file photo

Its new board president said the festival is working to address its longstanding IRS issues and hopes to not only regain its status as a tax-exempt nonprofit but also to become the type of nonprofit whose donations are tax-deductible.

“We have decided to pursue a 501(c)3 status, rather than the 501(c)4 status,” board President Tracy Collins said. “This will give us more options to raise funds moving forward.”

Mell Hamlyn, who led the festival for years and served as board treasurer, stepped away at the end of last year’s event. She said she had planned for 2018 to be her last festival.

“After serving 14 years with the festival, it is time to start spending more of  our too-short Maine summers on the lake at our family camp,” Hamlyn said this week. “The board is doing a great job with the planning of this year’s festival and have the schedule almost complete and ready for publication. I am always available to them to answer any questions they may have or to assist wherever they may need it.”

Harold Brooks, who had served on the board for 13 years, often handled event logistics and was the festival’s board president last year, also stepped down around that time. He is moving to Stoneham, a small town in Oxford County, and said his focus will be elsewhere. He said the festival was also getting more difficult to put on financially and he feels it hasn’t gotten the necessary support.

“It needs a lot more community support to keep going,” he said.

Brooks will also stop running the Redneck Blank, a popular festival that had been based in Hebron for several years. He hopes instead to host different events at the former Evergreen Valley Ski Resort, which was purchased by his sister and her husband last year.

Danielle Larrabee, a committee member who most recently served as secretary, also announced in the fall that she would not be returning to the balloon festival’s board because she no longer had time to serve between work and personal commitments. Larrabee is expected to remain a volunteer during festival weekend.

Collins, who has been involved with the festival for nine years and has worked with a variety of nonprofits, was elected board president in January. Nine people now serve on the all-volunteer board, including Ben Wiesner as balloon meister and Matthew Conklin as ballooning director.

The balloon festival is one of the biggest and most popular events in Lewiston-Auburn, drawing tens of thousands of people during a single summer weekend. More than 30 nonprofits typically sell food at the festival or otherwise rely on it for a large chunk of their annual fundraising.

The festival has been the focus of some controversy in recent years.

In 2017, three of five festival board members abruptly quit. Two said they were worried about the way the festival was being managed.

Soon after, city officials began examining the festival’s finances when someone connected with the event raised concerns about management. Lewiston Finance Director Heather Hunter ultimately found no improprieties but did recommend ways the festival could better document procedures, deal with bank reconciliation and capture information on balloon launch tickets.

Around that same time, a number of entertainers and businesses, including the festival’s insurer, said they had to chase Hamlyn for months to get paid.

In 2017, it also became public that the state had dissolved the festival as a nonprofit corporation three times in 12 years for failing to file required paperwork. The third time, the group was not registered as a nonprofit with the state during the 2016 balloon fest.

After doing a splash and dash, Windspirit, right, takes to the air as another hot air balloon touches down in the Androscoggin River during the 2016 Great Falls Balloon Festival. Sun Journal file photo

At the time, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office said it wasn’t unusual for groups to lose and regain their registration, but they’re not supposed to do business in Maine without it.

The festival is currently listed as “in good standing” with the state.

However, the festival’s federal tax-exempt status was revoked six years ago and remains revoked today because the festival failed to file its tax paperwork with the IRS. The IRS says it hasn’t received anything from the festival in 10 years.

Since 2017, Hamlyn, who works as an accountant, has said she sent in the IRS paperwork on time, that she’s spoken with the IRS, that the IRS was in the process of restoring the festival’s status. That restoration never happened.

Collins said she and the board are aware of the festival’s IRS situation. She said the board is working with an accountant and is applying to the IRS for the festival to become a 501(c)3 nonprofit, which would allow donations to be tax-deductible, making the festival more attractive to potential donors. The festival had been a 501(c)4, which meant it was tax-exempt, but donations were not deductible.

The festival is funded through sponsorship, donations and the sale of souvenirs, a portion of passenger balloon rides and fees it sets on for-profit and nonprofit vendors at the event. The festival also typically receives more than $16,000 in policing, public works and other help from Lewiston taxpayers, including the use of Simard-Payne Memorial Park.

Board members are pulling together this year’s event, scheduled for Aug. 16, 17 and 18.

“We are excited to soon announce our 27th theme once our logo is finalized,” Collins said. “We have three very exciting special-shape balloons and many returning balloonists.We have been working hard to remind others what the festival’s mission is. We are truly passionate of our mission.”

She said the board hopes to, among other things, expand the festival’s parade this year and honor the city of Auburn’s 150th birthday.

“We will still offer the same items as the past, such as the carnival, same launches, parade, entertainment, Family Fun Day, etc. So our core event will remain unchanged for the most part,” she said. “We are reaching outside of our local communities to promote the festival and L-A.”

The festival will remain free and open to the public.


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