PHOTO/GREAT RENO BALLOON RACE: The Dawn Patrol rises at the 2019 balloon races at Rancho San Rafael Park.

The Great Reno Balloon Race is floating back to Reno in September, just in time for its 40th Anniversary.

 “Forty years of flying free,” said Pete Copeland, balloon race director, as several balloons took flight from the new Glow Plaza. The races, as always, require no tickets or admission fees.

Glow Plaza, at 670 West Fourth Street in Reno, is part of a large downtown redevelopment project by Jacobs Entertainment, also hosts a free outdoor concert series every Friday and Saturday night this summer.  The lineup of music acts is available online.

The 2021 Balloon Races, in partnership with Renown Health, are scheduled Sept. 10 through Sept. 12. This year’s event will honor first responders and front-line workers, Copeland said.  The traditional Super Glow Show and the Dawn Patrol will kick off each morning’s races.

Other Great Reno Balloon Race partners include the Washoe County School District — which has offered the Tissue Paper Balloon Launch for more than 1,000 fifth-graders yearly since 1991 — and the Children’s Cabinet, which has participated in the event for 32 years.  A new event called Pink in the Park will highlight breast cancer awareness on Saturday, Sept. 11. Attendees are encouraged to wear pink that day. Sunday, Sept. 11 will be Organ Donor Awareness Day.  More information is available on the race website.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: The third wave of a mass ascension of balloons at the Great Reno Balloon Races in 2017.

 “We’re happy to be back,” said Copeland, who touted the economic benefits of Reno’s special events,  including the Balloon Races, as well as the mental health benefits of bringing people back to those events after a year of seclusion during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Part of the drama and excitement of the annual event are the unusual shapes of specialty balloons. This year’s flotilla will include several new shapes:  Allycorn, a pink unicorn; Kermie, a frog; Humpty Dumpty; Rocket Raccoon; Keystone Willy, a cop; and Con-Air, a robber. Returning balloons are Billy the Kid, a cowboy, and in this summer of wildfires, the timely appearance of Smokey the Bear. 

“This year we’re going to make up for the disappointment last year,” said Pilar Decoaotalora, a 30-year supporter and balloon race board member. “We are fine-tuning.” 

Blanket area added

Decoaotalora expects 75 balloons or more this year at the launch site, Rancho San Rafael Regional Park.

Board member Ed Buzzetti, involved with the event for 29 years, said there will be a new “blanket area” in the upper part of the park where spectators can sit and watch the activities.  “It will be a beautiful view, and we will have a food truck there too.”

Buzzetti encouraged area residents and fans to volunteer with the Balloon Races by registering at the website. Aeronaut volunteers can receive a car pass for the staff lot, an advantage on busy race days. Training is provided for a number of different positions, including crewing for pilots, field set-up and tear-down, working in the merchandise tent and safety patrolling.

The new Glow Plaza

The Glow Plaza, site of the Great Reno Balloon Race promotion, renews interest in the historic roadways that built Reno’s tourist industry.

Jonathan Boulware, general manager of the Sands Regency Casino Hotel and regional vice president of Jacobs Entertainment, said the Glow Plaza is the city’s newest entertainment venue.  Along with free live Friday and Saturday music concerts, the venue will also host food trucks, rotating on a weekly basis, and a full service outdoor bar in an Airstream deemed the “Tipsy Tin.” 

PHOTO/DREAMSTIME: The Dawn Patrol lifts off at the Great Reno Balloon Races.

He notes that the plaza’s location on West Fourth Street next to the Sands Regency Casino is an area “surrounded by history.”

The Fourth Street corridor

The Lincoln Highway, the first designated cross-continental highway, ran down today’s Third Street in 1913. In the mid-20th century, U.S. Highway 40, now Fourth Street, was the main road through Reno. That ribbon of highway brought the burgeoning traffic of automobile tourism to the area and supported flourishing roadside businesses and motels. 

“The Fourth Street Corridor defines who we are as a city,” Boulware said.  Eight historic plaques on The Glow Plaza wall along Fourth Street memorialize some of the significant businesses of the era, many of which are now demolished.

They include the Downtown Bowl bowling alley, the Stag Inn bar, the Gold Room gaming location that became Harrah’s Casino, Harold’s Club, the City Center Motel, The Donner Inn, the El Ray Motel and the Ramos Drugs Company drugstore and fountain diner.

Two historic buildings survive

Jacobs Entertainiment, the developer of Reno’s Neon Line District project, has obtained two historic buildings that played roles in the growing tourism industry of the past, Boulware said.

The Chapel of the Bells Wedding Chapel, 700 W Fourth St., built in 1961, will be joined by a  house built in 1875 and bought by Victor and Estelle Nystrom in 1944. That structure operated as the Nystrom Divorce Guest House. Divorcees would stay at the house to log the six weeks of residency required to obtain a Nevada divorce in an era when most other states had restrictions on dissolving marriages.

The house has been moved from Ralston Street to the Fourth Street location right behind the wedding chapel.

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