STATESVILLE, NC (WBTV) - Tens of thousands of balloon enthusiasts descending on Statesville this weekend for the 36th Annual Carolina BalloonFest, the second oldest ballon rally in the country. In our Cover Story, PrimeTime's Jeff Atkinson says this festival would not be happening, if it weren't for a hot air balloon company based in our own backyard.
A lot of people aren't even aware it's here. But the company is held up as a North Carolina success story.. taking the expertise of textiles and furniture and helping diversify the economy.
When you think about these birds of beauty.. Statesville probably doesn't come to mind. But in a non-descript warehouse near the Statesville Airport.. is FireFly Balloons.
In operation since 1972.. it's one of only a handful of companies in the world that still makes hot air balloons.
"This area was just conducive to that."
General Manager Keith Gantt took us on a tour.. told us it was North Carolina craftsmanship and experience with textiles and furniture that lured FireFly here 4 decades ago.. and not much has changed.
On a nylon roll.. each balloon begins its journey. Then it's cut into sections. And sewed together.
Each balloon is made by hand.. custom made.
And everything.. down to the nylon thread, the rope they use, and even the cardboard.. comes from companies that are home-grown.
"All of our materials except for maybe a few nuts and bolts are made in the USA. And we try to get as much stuff here locally as we can," says Gantt.
The journey ends with the balloon basket.. also hand-made.
They don't employ as many as they used to.. down to about a dozen people now.. the balloon business like everything else affected by the recession..
But the work hasn't stopped.. they're still shipping around the world.
Filling orders for companies who want to advertise. For vendors who give rides at rallies like this weekend's Balloon Fest in Statesville. And for everyday folks who like to thrill.
"People like to show off.. ha.. they really do. What more way to brag about yourself and what you're doing than a beautiful hot air balloon."
There's the Lake Norman monster "Normie."
The owl and the pussy cat.. the owl on one side.. cat on the other.
And their most challenging balloon.. the old woman in a shoe.
"It's truly an adventure.."
Bill Meadows, who's 72.. made the first balloon flight over Iredell county 40 years ago. He along with a colleague helped start the Statesville Balloon Rally which attracts tens of thousands from all the country each year.
"There's no noise," he says. "You have very slow motion. You can control the balloon to the point you can pick leaves off a top of a tree and land in little cow pastures."
Statesville's the home of a wide variety of manufacturers like Fire Fly Balloons.. the kind of company experts say North Carolina ought to be attracting.
Small businesses have created nearly two thirds of all the new jobs over the past decade and a half.
What does one balloon cost and how long does it take to make?
They run about 25-to-30-thousand dollars per balloon. There's about 200 man hours into each one. Right now they're producing about 20-to-25 balloons a year.