Reno is ripe with amazing special events, and The Great Reno Balloon Race is the quintessential family event: accessible to all, full of color, fun and beauty and perfect for the short-attention span crowd.
And most important, it's free.
The Race has been a part of Reno's September skyline since 1982, and keeping the venerable event afloat in the dismal economy of the last two years has been the job of Dixie Craig, event manager. Craig is an employee of Olsen & Associates, which has managed the event since 1989. The Balloon Race hires Olsen to run things, and Craig is the only person dedicated solely to the event. Craig says that fact is often lost on the community, which can often assume the race has a large foundation running it.
"They don't really have any separate paid staff. I am as close as it gets to a paid employee. Just me," she says.
Helming a free, non-profit event has proven a challenge, but it's the type of challenge Craig loves. She knew this was a big job when she got into it; she'd been at Olsen for more than three years prior to taking over as event manager and had at times worked on most aspects of the race. But becoming the boss was definitely a new step.
"I was terrified," she recalls, laughing. "I had to compete for the job, and I knew so many things about it, but I knew I didn't have all the details and there would be a big learning curve. I just had to dive in head first."
Craig was born in Dodge City, Kan., and is a self-proclaimed "little farm girl." She grew up wanting to be a mother and an accountant. She got married out of high school and did the mom part first, having a son and daughter. She worked as a bookkeeper, but soon found the analysis of accounting wasn't for her.
"I really like to brainstorm, and find new ways of thinking outside the box," she says.
With two kids at home, she decided to work as a massage therapist. She spent 10 years working from her house, in order to be home with her children.
But desiring to see new places, she eventually moved to Colorado and then Miami and Orlando. A turn of events found her looking for a change in her life, and after a few visits to see friends in Reno, she decided to head West.
She first worked as an administrative assistant for a freight company, but soon realized it wasn't where she wanted to be.
"I decided I needed to work for a place where I can make a difference. When the opportunity came to go to Olsen, I felt I'd have a greater impact. Then when I took over the event two years ago, I began working for a nonprofit," she says.
Craig had been to the Balloon Race when she moved to town, and had heard talk of the Dawn Patrol and the Glow Show, but never saw the early morning shows until she began working at the event. She was also unaware that you could go down on the field and actually get close to the balloons. She believes this is one of the many experiences that make the Balloon Race unique.
"Our event is very interactive. Sometimes you can help crew a balloon. You can go down on the field and help out," she says.
And help is a common theme when Craig discusses the race. She's passionate about sharing her excitement for the event with others, and just as passionate about the need for the community to help keep it alive and free.
"The Balloon Race is a community event. It's put on for the community and supported by the community. Without the aeronauts (the event's volunteer core), the vendors, the sponsors and community organizations, we couldn't do this," she says.
Like other special events, the coffers are running low for the Balloon Race. Craig and the event's board of directors and other Olsen team members have put their creativity to the test.
This year, the event will play host to its first wedding, which was bid upon by hopeful couples. Valued at more than $58,000, the fundraiser received a winning bid of $9,901.
Craig has also helped develop a "mobile giving" component where people can donate via their cell phone's texting function, and have a chance to win a ride in a balloon or a T-6 airplane during one of the flyovers done by pilots from the National Championship Air Races, which are held the following weekend. "It's been really challenging the last few years. But I'm very proud of what I've done, and I'm very proud of the board and our sponsors," she says.
She continues: "I challenge all businesses to do something. We have sponsorships as low as $1,700, which won't make or break most businesses but will have a huge impact on the event, families and our community."
As she gears up for another year of balloons and challenges, Craig says she's in Reno for the long haul. She's looking forward to the day she can get her own motorcycle, but for now, riding, and hanging out with friends and family are keeping her grounded.
"I have the most fabulous friends in Reno. I love Reno, love the people here," she says. "If the event went away, maybe, but I really have such good friends. I know so many great people."
Who: Dixie Craig, event manager, Great Reno Balloon Race
Family: One son in Kansas, daughter in Iowa. Two chihuahuas, tons of friends and family.
She says: "The toughest part of the job is the part I love the most. Dealing with all the entities and people at the event. There's just so many things to take into consideration. Sometimes it makes me crazy, but I love it."