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Navy Pier Businesses Hope Sales Rise With New Balloon Ride

Navy Pier from above
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Chicago’s newest tourist attraction could be floating over Navy Pier within days  – a soon-to-be welcome sight for business owners coping with sluggish sales this summer.

On Aug. 20, the Chicago Plan Commission unanimously approved the installation of a balloon ride that will operate until the end of October just outside Navy Pier’s gates.

Phil Stefani, the owner of Riva Café,  and other business owners hope the new balloon ride with start their cash registers clanging. Stefani said his receipts are down 10 percent this year, and he hopes the balloon ride will bring people to Illinois’ largest tourist attraction.

“It’s gonna be an attraction, just to get people to think about it,” Stefani said. “Even if they don’t ride it, they’re gonna think, ‘Hey, we haven’t been there in a long time.’”

Some commissioners expressed concern that the attraction, which will run from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., would cause traffic jams and crowding, and worried that it might pose a distraction to motorists as they drive on nearby Lake Shore Drive.

Commissioners also worried that the 24-foot platform at the base of the ride would damage the grass. Marilynn Gardner, the Navy Pier’s general manager, pledged that sod would be replaced at the end of the season.

But in the end, tourism dollars trumped all other concerns, and the panel unanimously approved the proposal.

“We need to continue to find ways, to find new attractions, to ensure that Navy Pier holds its standing as the state’s number one tourist destination,” said Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), whose ward is home to Navy Pier.

“It (the balloon ride) has the potential to be a magnet to draw people to Navy Pier like never before,” Gardner said.

Gardner told the commissioners that under its contract with AeroBalloon, the Boston-based operator of the ride, Navy Pier stood to receive a minimum of $50,000. It was unclear whether that amount represented payment for a full summer or the remainder of the 2009 season.

But Jon Kaplan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the public entity that oversees the pier, said in an e-mail Friday that AeroBalloon’s payment was “still being negotiated.”

The $50,000 figure is based on the assumption that AeroBalloon will return to Navy Pier next year, Kaplan said.

“It’s complicated,” he wrote.

The balloon will be tethered to the ground in Gateway Park, just north of the pier’s entrance, according to plans. It will hold up to 15 people and reach a height of 350 feet, said AeroBalloon President Doug Hase. That’s more than twice as high as the pier’s Ferris Wheel.

Tickets will cost $25 for adults and $12 for children, Hase said; in good weather, AeroBalloon could earn $19,800 per day in ticket sales. The ride will be grounded during stormy weather or in winds over 25 mph.

Navy Pier’s attendance is actually higher this year than it was last summer, Kaplan said, likely because Chicagoans are staying closer to home in the poor economy.

But visitors are spending less, and revenues are “down slightly” compared to last summer, he said.

An estimated 8.5 million people visit Navy Pier each year, Gardner said.

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