Saturday, July 19, 2003

Flight festival has ups, downs

Celebration Central disappoints, but other events draw thousands

By James Hannah
The Associated Press

DAYTON, Ohio - The city's 17-day celebration of the 100th anniversary of powered flight has been a roller-coaster ride, with as many highs and lows as native sons Wilbur and Orville Wright had on their first flights.

"Thank God, we had both the chutzpah and the money to try a variety of things," said Fred Bartenstein, a former city of Dayton planner and an early advocate for the celebration.

The celebration started off strong when 11,000 people attended opening-day ceremonies July 3 and 25,000 people flocked to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to hear an Independence Day speech by President Bush.

But severe weather and $20 ticket prices made for disappointing attendance at Celebration Central, a collection of flight-related exhibits under tents near downtown. Three or four vendors packed up their stuff and pulled out.

Organizers sliced ticket prices in half, moved outlying attractions into the main plaza, and offered discounts and coupons.

"We made some adjustments, and we're pleased with the results," said Madeline Iseli, co-president of Inventing Flight.

Iseli said 17,000 people came to the exposition last weekend, and she predicted that the estimated turnout of 600,000 people for all of the activities in the 17-day celebration will be realized.

The 185-room Doubletree Hotel downtown was not booked prior to the celebration, but has been full or nearly full since last weekend.

Sales director Jennifer Brown said people attending the celebration and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics conference have filled the hotel.

"It has been wonderful," Brown said. "Our restaurant breakfasts are booming."

Plans for a hot-air balloon launch brought 20,000 people to the grounds of the U.S. Air Force Museum, but a fast-moving thunderstorm aborted the event and sent people scurrying.

However, 15,000 people came back for the launch two days later. And a week later, 53,000 people showed up to watch three blimps tool around the sky.

"We generally have a pretty busy summer, but certainly those major events have given us the opportunity to generate additional traffic," said museum spokesman Chris McGee.

Bartenstein said parts of the celebration have been "spectacularly successful," including the balloon and blimp events, living-history skits around the city in which actors portray the Wright brothers, and the completion of the national park devoted to the Wright brothers and Dayton's aviation heritage.

"I've heard not one whine about it not meeting expectations," he said.

However, he said other things have fallen short of expectations.

The shuttle system confused people, many of whom did not know where to park or where to get on the shuttles, he said. And Celebration Central was lacking, he said.

"It just wasn't as strong a concept nor as appealing a concept to the audience that we would have hoped," he said. "There are a lot of things, but I don't think a lot of things add up for a strong enough experience."

Peter Titlebaum, a University of Dayton professor who teaches a sports-marketing course, said the celebration may have been too long, making it a challenge for organizers to maintain interest.

"It was very ambitious," Titlebaum said. "To create 17 days of events when the Olympics isn't that long ... is quite a challenge the city took on for itself. You have to admire what they did."

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