In Yonkers, N.Y., it was a tough decision: they could either blast some fireworks into the sky to celebrate American independence … or have some extra money (say, $100,000) to pay the police squad overtime. You can imagine what they chose. In Flint, Mich., the Fourth of July festivities were canceled, then saved by a sponsor, then stalled again when the town realized one week wasn't enough time to prepare.
From Arizona to Ohio, savvy bureaucrats have spent the last week trying to save their good ole fashioned fireworks displays. What if, like some folks in Connecticut, they charged each car $5? What if, like Houston, they scaled back the display to something more affordable? What if they begged and bartered with any sponsor or city agency that could swoop in to save the show? Hey, it worked in Tucson, Ariz., where the Pascua Yaqui Tribe donated $20,000 to subsidize the once-canceled show.
There's no truer sign of an American recession than a bailout from a Native American reservation. But the patriots in Arizona are the lucky ones, especially after more than 20 municipalities were forced to cancel their pyrotechnics. That's depressing, but it's not the end of the American way. "There are some towns that have scaled back due to the economy—a few dozen perhaps—but there are more than 14,000 shows across the country this weekend," says Julie Heckman, the executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. "The situation is not as dismal as it might appear to be, and it's certainly not affecting the industry's bottom line."
Her numbers are supported anecdotally by leaders in the fireworks industry. The Grucci family tells NEWSWEEK that this will be the 14th consecutive year they will be fully booked, with 88 shows nationwide. Each of these costs in excess of $50,000, and plans for the 2009 celebration have come from the company's five-year contracts that were established in 2004. "You have to keep in mind that this holiday is happening on a Saturday—which hasn't happened since 1998," says M. Philip Butler, a producer for Grucci, in explaining that the fortuitous calendar helped their finances. One municipality did call the fireworks company in hopes of cancelling their show, but they withered when the families in the community began to complain. Another company, Pyro Spectaculars, told The New York Times that a few small California towns in their purview had canceled their shows. "In places where a small community canceled their show, there is usually a show happening three to four miles away," Heckman says. "The skies are not going to be dark for July Fourth."
That's cold comfort for families looking forward to annual tradition in their own hometowns. When Washington's Fort Vancouver announced they wouldn't be hosting their 47-year-old show this year, many in the community were stunned. "People are saying they can't imagine the Fourth of July without the fireworks at Fort Vancouver," says Mary Sisson, an owner of the Kazoodles toy store in town. "It's been a part of the fabric of our city, and now that tradition is lost." In previous years, the Fort Vancouver fireworks—billed as "the biggest fireworks display west of the Mississippi"—had been supported by local sponsors and the sale of backyard, or consumer, fireworks. But when rising firework prices (due in part to warehouse fires in China) met worsening economic conditions, it became clear to organizers that this year's display and day-long celebration would need to be postponed. "For years, the community thought they could come here for free," says Elson Strahan, the president of the Fort Vancouver National Trust. "Now that they're sad about the 2009 fireworks, they're realizing they'll need to do their part to chip in."
Already, that group is planning for a scaled-back 2010 celebration, hoping for a better budget and more community participation. Other towns with canceled displays are also optimistic about next year. That's because many of the 2009 cancellations are due to last-minute budget cuts when municipalities needed the money for crucial services such as police and fire protection.
That's exactly what happened in Springfield, Mo.—home to the $100,000 Firefall celebration—where administrators learned the police and fire pension was underfunded by nearly $200 million. In February, citizens voted against a sales tax to help pay for the pension, so budget cuts were made across every department, including the Parks program. Firefall was among the first projects to lose its flame. "If we're having trouble even keeping all the firehouses in town open, there's no need to spend this additional money," says Bob Nelson, an administrator on the county park board. "But this has nothing to do with economic times—it is more involved with our own budget problems." He expects that many from the area will seek out other displays, or set off their own pyrotechnics in backyards. After all, it wouldn't be the Fourth without a little explosive activity.