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Pasco aviation festival attendees grounded in traffic

LUTZ — In about two hours, you could drive from Lutz to Fort Myers or Cape Canaveral.

On Friday, it took some families that long to get from one part of Lutz to another.

Visitors to Festival of Flight, the annual three-day aviation and hot-air balloon event at Tampa North Flight Center, posted frustrated messages on the event's Facebook page complaining about excessive traffic.

"What a traffic nightmare!" Marguerite Mitkus wrote on Facebook. "After almost 2 hrs of stop and stop traffic, we turned around and headed home."

Another post quipped: "Top U.S. Cities With Worst Traffic: 3) New York, 2) Los Angeles, 1) Lutz during Festival of Flight."

The event, organized by American Balloons, kicked off at 5 p.m. Friday with a "night glow" — operators filled balloons at sunset along the 3,500-foot runway and illuminated them with their flames. Tied down, the balloons did not fly, but created a nice photo opportunity. Some planes flew into the airport, too, and food venders were present, said organizer and American Balloons owner Jessica Warren.

"All our traffic problems started around 6 p.m. as people were trying to get home from work and school, and everyone trying to get to the festival at the same time," Warren said.

She estimated that about 4,000 to 5,000 people attended the event Friday. Pasco County sheriff's officials said two deputies were dispatched to Wesley Chapel Boulevard after the department received complaints about excessive traffic along the road, which is two lanes wide south of the airport and four lanes north of it.

Saturday morning, the traffic was less severe, Warren said, though it still garnered some complaints on social media. In the end, though, the event was formally canceled Saturday afternoon and Sunday because of poor weather, further dampening morale, though some activities persisted.

Warren said she and her family are discussing what the future holds for the event. They've been approached by Zephyrhills Municipal Airport and Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport — both larger airports — as well as out-of-state airports asking to host the event in coming years, but Warren said she would prefer to host the event in central Pasco, where her family lives. That is, if the event continues at all.

"As a company and as a personal investment, we took this on," she said. "And with the negativity we received and with the bashing we got on Facebook, it's a hard pill for anyone to swallow."

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @josh_solomon15.

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