MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — In the winter months in Minnesota where people typically hibernate at home. You could find a crowd bundled up riverside in Lowell Park downtown Stillwater on Friday night.

The Fire and Ice Hot Air Balloon Festival is a first time event, created to help save the tourism destination hit hard by the pandemic.

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“We really wanted to do what we could to get people down here,” said Robin Anthony, the Executive Director of the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce. “Let’s do something collaborative to help our downtown businesses and our businesses in general,” said Anthony.

The Chamber created the overarching concept of “Winter in Stillwater” which includes light displays, an ice maze and now this Fire and Ice Hot Air Balloon Festival.

Their hope is that if people have a reason to come to Stillwater, that will leads into plans to stay, walk around and shop.

“COVID, as you know, has really taken a hit with the small town here in Stillwater, it’s all tourists and it’s been a struggle,” said Kelli Kauffer, the co-owner of “Smith + Trade Mercantile” on Main Street in downtown Stillwater.

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Kauffer and her husband and co-owner Paul, say the winter events and attractions have helped reverse the COVID losses.

“We’re getting people through this door that we probably normally wouldn’t ,” said Paul Kauffer.

“We’re seeing a big uptick compared to last year. It’s been really, really quite nice,” said Kelli Kauffer.

While “Wintertime In Stillwater” is a new concept, business owners hope it turns into tradition

The Fire and Ice Hot Air Balloon festival continues in Lowell Park Saturday night from 4 to 7, weather permitting. If it’s too windy to launch the balloons visitors can still ignite the balloon propane tanks and chat with the balloon pilots.

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Space is limited, so you have to make a reservation.

Marielle Mohs