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Electric cooperative members recognize the iconic Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives logo as a familiar national brand, but hot-air balloon enthusiasts know it as a symbol of their sport.
“I first flew the Touchstone Energy name at the National Hot Air Balloon Championship in Rantoul, Illinois,” said Cheri White, Cooperative Balloon Associates general manager and chief pilot of the Touchstone Energy hot-air balloon program.
That was 20 years ago, just hours after representatives of some Illinois co-ops asked her to carry their banner aloft to help publicize the Touchstone Energy brand, then in its infancy. The co-ops were sponsors of the event but did not have a relationship with any balloonists at the time.
“I won the women's division, and I finished 10th overall in the nationals,” White recalled. “We received a lot of media attention on television and in the papers. The co-ops supporting us saw incredible potential to engage people with the balloon.”
Eight Illinois distribution co-ops and two generation and transmission providers, Marion-based Southern Illinois Power Cooperative and Springfield-based Soyland Power, now called Prairie Power Cooperative, formed Cooperative Balloon Associates. Within months, they successfully pitched the idea to Touchstone Energy directors for national sponsorship.
When the ballooning season kicked off in 2000, the first Touchstone Energy balloon was launched. After an initial appearance at a co-op event in Illinois, White packed up her uniforms, the balloon and basket and headed to the NRECA Annual Meeting in Orlando, Florida.
“We didn't have any jobs on the books,” said White. “We didn't know how we were going to make money or how we were going to make the program a success, but we inflated the balloon right across from the convention center.”
The static display of the tethered balloon was a hit, and once the bookings started, they never stopped. A few dozen dates over a six-month season have now grown to more than 100 events per year. With a growing fleet and five main pilots, the balloons have been featured at co-op meetings, state and county fairs, agricultural exhibitions, community festivals and balloon competitions.
“In 20 years, we have put approximately 931,625 miles on the ground in our vans and 1,940 hours in the air in our balloons,” said White, a member of Johnson City, Texas-based Pedernales Electric Cooperative. The balloon program and Touchstone Energy have also returned more than $320,000 in charitable donations to co-op-served communities since 1999.
It’s not uncommon for all five active balloons to be airborne at different events in one day during busy periods. Pilots and balloons are now based in New Mexico, Texas, Washington, Ohio, and between Little Rock and St. Louis to help meet demand in their respective regions.
White won the Touchstone Energy Brand Champion Award this year for her work promoting the balloon program. “Cheri’s love for ballooning is contagious,” said John Petrehn, a Touchstone Energy balloon pilot and two-time competitive balloonist world champion.
“Whether she is in a small town in rural America or in the largest city in the world," he said, "you will find Cheri sharing her love of ballooning, educating customers about Touchstone Energy electric cooperatives and creating memorable experiences for everyone."