July Fourth Fireworks Sparkle Less Under Recession

June 30, 2009 - 4:54 PM
Lack of bucks means less bang this July Fourth for many cash-strapped cities.

In this Wednesday, June 24, 2009, file photo, the Target Fireworks display lights the sky over downtown Detroit. (AP Photo/The Detroit News, Elizabeth Conley)

(AP) - Lack of bucks means less bang this July Fourth for many cash-strapped cities.
 
Fireworks shows are being canceled or scaled back, mostly in small and midsize cities, as municipalities' tax revenue dries up with the slowing economy and falling home prices. Funding from corporate sponsorships also has fizzled as businesses deal with economic problems of their own.
 
The budget realities are forcing communities to decide, for example, whether they can pay for extra police and fire protection for a fireworks show - or perhaps pay an officer's salary for the rest of the year. And some organizers have concerns about seeking money for a celebration as communities struggle to take care of life-or-death needs worsened by the recession.
 
In some cases, it's not just the fireworks shows getting the ax. Municipal and corporate sponsors, forced into frugality by the tough economy, have reduced or pulled funding for whole festivals encompassing music, food and other staples of summer.
 
Fireworks fans acknowledge the tough realities, but also say free fireworks shows aren't frivolous - rather, that they're a nearly sacred institution.
 
"The economic calamity that has hit the nation is something that we can understand," Dave Richmond, 41, of Parma, Ohio, wrote in an e-mail after the city decided it couldn't justify a $25,000 fireworks show amid a tax revenue shortfall of $2.4 million and furloughs of city workers. But "we feel jaded and very disappointed that a celebration of what our Founding Fathers worked so hard to give us is squandered by those who collect and spend our tax dollars." Richmond has attended the celebration since 1972.
 
Some fireworks companies have reported that business is off about 10 percent from last year, said Julie L. Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, an industry group.
 
"We've not seen communities struggle to the level that they are this year to be able to fund their shows," she said.
 
Shows are being canceled from sea to shining sea:
 
- A $500,000 festival and fireworks display in San Jose, Calif., was canceled after the city cut grants to cover police and fire protection and other expenses to $17,000 from about $103,000, and other public and private sponsors cut back. The city's grant cutbacks came amid an $84 million budget shortfall that also has municipal workers forgoing raises and the city cutting back on road repairs.
 
"With a fireworks show, you can't really charge people to look up in the sky," said Fil Maresca, who had produced the show for 10 years.
 
- Local businesses in Charlottesville, Va., that organize the event are scaling it back this year and have already canceled it for next year.
 
"We thought it was just not the right year to be raising money for the fireworks when the food banks were suffering and more primary human services were at stake," said Dave Phillips, chairman of the organizing committee.
 
- In Hialeah, Fla., near Miami, an annual event was canceled this year because sponsorship money dried up in an area that's been especially hard hit by plunging housing prices. Organizers were short $20,000 to $25,000 to pay for the $40,000 to $45,000 show.
 
Other cities canceling shows include Mesa, Ariz.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Niceville, Fla.; and Garland, Texas.
 
When budget woes hit cities, quality-of-life services like holiday festivals and parades are usually the first to go, said Christiana McFarland, a National League of Cities' researcher.
 
Stephen Vitale, president of Pennsylvania-based Pyrotecnico, said while his company is doing more shows this year because the holiday falls on a weekend, it's clear that communities are struggling to pay for displays.
 
"They fight real hard to keep it when they can," Vitale said.
 
Still, there will be an estimated 14,000 firework displays this year.
 
"I think many people would say, 'How do you do a Fourth of July celebration without fireworks?'" said Chief Executive Doug Taylor of Zambelli Fireworks Internationale.
 
Fireworks shows in big cities like Chicago will go on as usual, while organizers acknowledge sponsor dollars have been tight. New York's fireworks display, which is put on by Macy's Inc., was unaffected.
 
Even beaten-down cities like Detroit, which has been flayed by high unemployment and a faltering auto industry, have been able to keep their displays.
 
"This community really, really needs these types of events to bring people together to create camaraderie and take people's minds off of those day-to-day troubling issues," said Tony Michaels, president of The Parade Co., a nonprofit group that organizes the annual fireworks.
 
Detroit's show, one of the earliest of the season and primarily paid for by corporate sponsors including Target Corp., lit up the skies last week.
 
"It's real Americana," Michaels said. "All cities need these things."
 
In Ashtabula, Ohio, northeast of Cleveland, fireworks were canceled for the first time in 14 years until a local radio station's "Save the Fireworks" promotion netted the final $1,900 needed for the show, organizer Greg Kocjancic said.
 
"We survived," Kocjancic said. "The community - individuals and businesses basically - saved the fireworks, because the city couldn't help. A small town became mighty."
 
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Associated Press writers Sarah Larimer in Miami and Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix contributed to this report.