How Cash-Strapped Towns Are Saving Fourth of July Fireworks

Independence Day celebrations are an economic boost for communities. And with budgets tight, there are several ways towns can avoid canceling their shows.

National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
July 2, 2014, 3:59 p.m.

The night sky will be dark this Fourth of Ju­ly for many towns across the coun­try.

In re­cent years, sev­er­al towns — small and large — on tight budgets have can­celed their fire­works shows for the Fourth of Ju­ly. But it might not be the smartest way of sav­ing money, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing the eco­nom­ic booms the shows cre­ate, and the fun­drais­ing op­tions out there for these strug­gling towns.

For places like Michigan City, Ind., Tewks­bury, Mass., and Mari­on, Mass., there simply wasn’t enough money to put on a fire­works show this year, as they saw it. Which, on its face, makes sense: A show for even a small town can cost $10,000.

Ron Meer, the may­or of Michigan City, ex­plained to loc­al me­dia that he has “a Vi­et­nam vet­er­ans me­mori­al on the lake­front that needs re­fur­bish­ing and I have [a] Michigan City light­house that needs struc­tur­al re­pair and a paint job.” With budgets tight, some towns see fire­works dis­plays as a good place to cut back.

But that’s not the way Dav­id Kar­em, the pres­id­ent of the Louis­ville Wa­ter­front De­vel­op­ment Cor­por­a­tion, looks at it. Be­cause the Ken­tucky Le­gis­lature cut $420,000 out of his de­part­ment’s budget, he had to can­cel Louis­ville’s two-day In­de­pend­ence Fest­iv­al this year. The cel­eb­ra­tion had been a loc­al main­stay since 1998, and in­cluded a free con­cert and two nights of fire­works, and drew 150,000 people.

“These events are not lux­ur­ies. These events are not frills. These events are im­port­ant to get com­munit­ies to­geth­er. These events are a heal­ing to dif­fer­ences that ex­ist,” Kar­em says. “It is a big, sig­ni­fic­ant mis­take on the part of the people who fund these events to cut back on them.”

That im­pact goes bey­ond tra­di­tion and en­ter­tain­ment. It’s also about the eco­nomy. More spec­tat­ors bring in more money for loc­al busi­nesses. Ju­lie Heck­man, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or for Amer­ic­an Pyro­tech­nics As­so­ci­ation, cites sev­er­al ex­amples from in­de­pend­ent stud­ies.

In the small town of Tipton, Pa., Del­Grosso’s Amuse­ment Park brings in 5,000 guests on a nor­mal day. Dur­ing its Sum­mer Thun­der fire­works show, more than 20,000 people come to the park, with an ad­di­tion­al 30,000 spec­tat­ors parked in the sur­round­ing area. In Ad­dis­on, Texas, Ka­boom Town brings in $2.5 mil­lion in res­taur­ant rev­en­ue. Red, White & Boom in Colum­bus, Ohio, has an $11 mil­lion im­pact on the city. San Diego’s Big Bay Boom fire­works bring in $10.6 mil­lion.

Heck­man says that there is a shift hap­pen­ing across the coun­try from towns can­celing fire­works dis­plays be­cause they are too ex­pens­ive to now find­ing oth­er ways to pay for a show.

One op­tion is to seek out­side spon­sor­ship. Seattle was on the verge of can­celing its fire­works cel­eb­ra­tion last year over Lake Uni­on un­til sev­er­al cor­por­a­tions, in­clud­ing Mi­crosoft and Amazon, sponsored the show.

There are also sev­er­al na­tion­al con­tests. Des­tin­a­tion Amer­ica’s Red, White & You con­test this year awar­ded five towns $4,000 for a fire­works show. One of those towns is Prescott, Ar­iz., which lost 19 fire­fight­ers bat­tling wild­fires last year. At the height of the Great Re­ces­sion in 2010, Liberty Mu­tu­al sponsored a sim­il­ar event called Bring Back the 4th for 10 cit­ies and towns across the coun­try.

Some towns have partnered to save money and of­fer big­ger shows for more people. In Chica­go­land, sev­er­al towns got to­geth­er to form the North­w­est Fourth-Fest for a col­lab­or­at­ive cel­eb­ra­tion to save money. El­gin, one of the par­ti­cip­at­ing towns, spent $65,000 back when it did its own fire­works show. As of 2012, the town spent had $22,000 through the new part­ner­ship.

And fun­drais­ing can be as simple as us­ing col­lec­tion jars in front of a re­tail store or char­ging park­ing fees.

“I really do hope that com­munit­ies that are cash-strapped and strug­gling think cre­at­ively to bring these shows back to their com­munity,” Heck­man says. “What oth­er hol­i­day does the com­munity really come to­geth­er, re­gard­less of re­li­gion and re­gard­less of polit­ic­al be­liefs? Every­body wants to cel­eb­rate the Fourth of Ju­ly. If the skies are dark, it has a huge im­pact on the com­munity.”

While the eco­nomy con­tin­ues to im­prove, few­er towns will have to can­cel their fire­works cel­eb­ra­tions for In­de­pend­ence Day this year. But for those that are still in the red, there may be some op­tions to make sure fire­works re­main syn­onym­ous with the Fourth of Ju­ly.

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