Costs explode for July Fourth fireworks displays

  • The Vermont Symphony Orchestra plays while a crowd watches fireworks on June 29, 2007, at the Quechee Polo Field in Quechee, Vt. (Valley News - Ikuru Kuwajima) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph — Ikuru Kuwajima

  • Fireworks explode over the Storrs Hill Ski Area in Lebanon, N.H., on Wednesday, July 4, 2018. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photo

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    Hell’s Gate Fireworks co-owner Russ Rigoli rests his hands on several of his “guns,” polyethlyene and fiberglass tubes that launch the fireworks into the air, in his workshop in Rumney, N.H., on June 29, 2016. Rigoli is a Marine Corp veteran who served in Vietnam, and said he enjoys working in the fireworks business because, "(It's) the only way I can blow (stuff) up without getting arrested." Last July, one of Rigoli’s fireworks misfired and exploded in his face, resulting in an injury that ended with roughly 200 stitches in his jaw. When many would have ended the show, Rigoli fought through the pain. “The show must go on,” he said. (Valley News - Mac Snyder) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Mac Snyder

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/24/2022 10:22:05 PM
Modified: 6/24/2022 10:21:46 PM

After two years of muted or canceled Fourth of July celebrations during the pandemic, municipalities are facing with a new challenge: The rising cost of fireworks displays.

Town officials have had to find additional money in their budgets or look for outside funding sources for fireworks displays, which were already often the largest expense of any celebration.

Last year, Hartland paid $7,000 for a fireworks display at its Old Home Days celebration on July Fourth. This year, it rose to $10,000. The total Old Home Days budget is $11,000, according to Hartland Town Manager Dave Ormiston.

“We’ve got a little room in this year’s budget, so we were able to absorb that,” Ormiston said. “Next year we’re going to have to budget more for it. But obviously the town is shouldering a good amount here.”

The price increases follow national trends of inflation and supply chain difficulties that have plagued nearly every industry. Of particular concern to fireworks companies is the increase in freight costs. Five years ago it cost $5,000 to ship a container of fireworks from China; this year it cost $45,000, said Tom Swenson, general operations manager, of East Montpelier, Vt.-based Northstar Fireworks, which puts on fireworks shows throughout the Twin States, including in Hartland.

“That’s just freight costs, that’s not even product,” Swenson said. “That’s out of control.”

Rising gas, labor and insurance expenses have also contributed to increasing costs. As a result, Northstar asked towns to commit to a $10,000 minimum for Fourth of July fireworks shows. Those who already spent $10,000 were asked to increase their fireworks budget by 30%.

“We probably should have charged double, (but) we wanted to keep some of our local customers, so instead of making them jump higher we said let’s meet in the middle,” Swenson said. “Our margins have gotten way smaller, but we’re OK with that because we want towns like Hartland and Brownsville to get a show.”

There were only two or three towns that decided to cancel a show with Northstar, Swenson said. Town administrator Mike Samson decided to cancel Canaan’s show rather than ask Cardigan Mountain School, which traditionally funds the display, to double its donation.

“That’s a pretty big jump,” Samson said of the increase from $5,000 to $10,000. “I just don’t feel that morally I can ask the donor to increase that donation.”

The cost of fireworks has largely remained stable for communities; Samson said in his 12 years as town administrator it has always been $5,000. Lebanon has spent $5,000 for a 20-minute show on the Fourth of July at Storrs Hill for many years, said Paul Coats, director of the Lebanon Recreation, Arts and Parks Department. This year, the department will spend $10,000. The additional $5,000 will come from revenue from races like the Shamrock Shuffle 5K, which typically goes to improvement projects in the city’s parks.

“It was not what we were expecting to do this year, but when it was laid out in front of us that way, where they said if you want us to come it’s going to cost that much, we said we’re going to need to raise that money one way or another,” Coats said. “We did not want to have a Fourth of July celebration without fireworks being part of it.”

From 2016 to 2019, Lebanon has had two fireworks shows each summer: one on the Fourth of July and one as part of its End of Summer Celebration at the end of August. In 2020, both fireworks shows were canceled and both returned in 2021. This year, the city is returning to a single fireworks show on the Fourth. Staff had already been thinking about changing up the End of Summer Celebration before the increase in costs.

“It’s one of the factors that certainly helped put us over the edge, but we also know that fireworks have an impact on the community and wildlife that live around here. So keeping fireworks in Lebanon to one night a year makes sense from a variety of standpoints, and this increase in costs helps solidify that decision,” Coats said.

Claremont budgeted $10,000 for its July Fourth fireworks display at Monadnock Park, which the city had largely brought in through fundraising efforts from local businesses when Northstar asked them to come up with $2,000 more, said Justin Martin, superintendent of recreation programs. The city received a grant from Walmart to cover the difference.

“The $12,000 this year is the same caliber show that $10,000 was last year,” Martin said.

Hartford Parks and Recreation Director Scott Hausler said the town, which relies on its budget and donations to fund its July Fourth display, was able to absorb the $2,000 cost. Fairlee budgets $6,000 for its display over Lake Morey and was asked to go up $4,000 by Northstar, Town Administrator Tad Nunez said.

“The good news is we have an anonymous donor that puts us over the $10,000, but going forward I will recommend to my board when we do our budget this fall that if they wish to continue, they put it at $10,000 because as much as you want to have an anonymous donor every year it may not happen,” Nunez said.

Woodsville, which runs a joint celebration with Vermont neighbor Wells River, also had a $2,000 increase.

“We just had to look very carefully at our budget,” said Gary Scruton, president of the Woodsville/Wells River Fourth of July Committee. The total budget for the event is $20,000 and is funded by area businesses, towns and villages. “Certainly our biggest expense is the fireworks display, so we have to be very careful on how we go about fundraising.”

The person who does their fireworks show is retiring and, as the committee begins its search for a new supplier, there are concerns the cost will continue to rise, Scruton said.

Stephen Pelkey, owner and CEO of Newport-based Atlas Fireworks, said that municipalities that would spend $8,000 to $10,000 prior to the pandemic are now spending $10,000 to $12,000. Like Northstar, Atlas has seen a staggering increase in shipping costs. Prior to the start of the pandemic, it cost between $10,000 and $12,000 to ship a 40-foot container from countries in the far east, including China. Now, it costs around $38,000, which is “nearly half the cost of the value that’s actually in the container,” Pelkey said. Then there are additional costs to ship the fireworks from where the ships dock up to Newport.

“More fireworks companies are being saddled with 35-40% price increases,” Pelkey said. “We can’t, as Atlas as a corporation can’t pass that onto the consumer because the consumer won’t accept it.”

Instead, Atlas has raised the cost of municipal displays and retail fireworks by 15% to 18%. They’re also facing a labor shortage. During the pandemic, pyrotechnicians left for other jobs in other states, and Atlas has had to rebuild its workforce. While they have enough employees for the Fourth of July, Pelkey stressed that employees are required to do an apprenticeship and have other training.

“You just can’t have anyone come off the street and say, ‘I want to shoot fireworks,’ ” he said. “You need experience, and unfortunately it takes about one or two years to groom a licensed pyrotechnician.”

Swenson and Pelkey said they were able to get the same variety of fireworks they usually get and the shows will generally be the same as past years.

Swenson said he expects costs to continue to rise next year, which may impact the way towns approach fireworks shows in the years to come. Multiple towns might have to join together to produce one big multi-town show.

“These little towns aren’t going to be able to afford these anymore,” he said. “That’s where I see the way of the future, Hartland, Hartford, Brownsville, are going to have to get together and do one show for Windsor County.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.




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