Upper Valley communities turn to lasers, drones to celebrate Fourth

People watch a laser show during New Year's celebrations in Bucharest, Romania, Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru)

People watch a laser show during New Year's celebrations in Bucharest, Romania, Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru) Andreea Alexandru—AP

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 06-26-2024 7:01 PM

SUNAPEE — Fourth of July light displays will be a little different in a several Upper Valley towns this summer.

Sunapee and Lebanon are using lights instead of pyrotechnics to celebrate Independence Day, and Claremont and Woodstock have switched the dates of their annual fireworks displays. The reasons for the changes range from the availability of fireworks companies to environmental concerns.

This Saturday at 9 p.m., Sunapee will host its first-ever drone show instead of traditional fireworks. Town Manager Shannon Martinez said the switch came about after a group of residents who are “more and more concerned about the health of our watershed,” approached town officials earlier this spring about the impact the annual fireworks show has on the health of Lake Sunapee.

According to a 2019 “Environmental Fact Sheet” put together by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, debris from fireworks can be “a potential source chemical contaminants to the waterbody.” Additionally, some fireworks have phosphorus and nitrogen compounds “that contribute to algal and plant growth in lakes.”

While town officials and residents understand that the impact a single fireworks show has on the lake could be minimal “the question is ‘what are the good decisions that we can make on the daily that make sure we’re protecting our water?’ ” Martinez said in a phone interview this week.

After a few more conversations, the Selectboard approved a pilot program for a drone show. It will cost around $16,000 to put on, which is a similar cost to fireworks shows, Martinez said. The Lake Sunapee Yacht Club is working with the town to put on the display, which is primarily funded by donations.

“It feels, looks and is going to be different so (...) maybe we just have to wait to see how it goes,” Martinez said. She emphasized that this year’s drone show is a pilot program and if the community ends up not liking it, town officials will reconsider their options for next year.

Lebanon will celebrate the Fourth of July with a laser light show this year — albeit for a different reason than Sunapee. For more than 30 years, Vermont-based Northstar Fireworks has done Lebanon’s annual Fourth of July fireworks display, said Paul Coats, director of Lebanon’s Recreation, Arts and Parks Department.

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Earlier this year, Northstar Fireworks told the city that the company was “not able to offer one to Lebanon despite our pleading and offer to do them on the third or the fifth or some other time around the fourth,” Coats said. The company instead will put on a fireworks display on Thursday, Aug. 22, as part of Lebanon’s Summer Celebration.

While Lebanon doesn’t spend the most money on fireworks, Coats said, “we’ve been a loyal customer for them and they’ve been loyal to us.”

Northstar Fireworks has seen an increase in business and has had to be more selective about which shows they can do on the Fourth of July, Tom Swenson, Northstar’s general manager and choreographer, said in a phone interview this week.

“We’re so busy being a Vermont company we had to make some choices about what shows we were going to take,” Swenson said, adding that they offered Lebanon other dates around the Fourth, but city officials took too long to respond and when they did the dates were filled up. The time needed to get employees properly certified played a role, but it wasn’t the sole reason they made the decision that they did.

The company also canceled Fourth of July shows in other New Hampshire towns. On the week of the Fourth of July, the minimum financial commitment for out-of-state shows is $15,000; most spend between $20,000 and $30,000. They will be producing around 60 fireworks shows on the Fourth of July alone.

“Right now we have a waiting list,” Swenson said. He encouraged smaller communities to join together to host a single fireworks display. “I think towns are going to have to get flexible.”

After learning that Northstar was unavailable, Lebanon staff began to explore other options for a light display on the Fourth. Staff contacted other companies, but were told they were unable to add shows for new clients on the Fourth.

“Celebrating the Fourth on the fourth is a special thing and expected,” Coats said, adding that this year the Thursday holiday coincides with the weekly Lebanon Farmers Market. They had also already scheduled other events that day, such as the annual Red, White & Blue 6.2 & 5K. “There’s things that are going on that we already had set up and we didn’t want to alter those things.”

In February, staff reached out to Dynamic FX, a visual effects company that has a location in Boston, and signed a $10,250 contract with it to provide a laser light show on the Fourth of July. That’s less than the $12,500 the city paid Northstar Fireworks for the Fourth show last year, Coats said.

“If people want to speculate that we are not doing it because we want to save a dollar, that’s not accurate,” he said in a phone interview this week, adding that the plan is to resume the traditional fireworks display in 2025. “We’re not trying to cancel the Fourth of July.”

Claremont, which also uses Northstar Fireworks, changed its fireworks display to Wednesday, July 3, after they learned the company was unavailable on the Fourth of July, said Justin Martin, the new director of the Claremont Parks & Recreation Department. The rain date for the event is Friday, July 5.

“A nice benefit to the City was it was at a reduced cost than what it would have been on the Fourth,” Martin said in a phone interview this week. This year’s show will cost $15,000; he did not have information about what the city spent last year.

The more staff thought about it, though, the more the change of date seemed to benefit the community at large. Many businesses give their employees the Fourth of July off so having a late-night celebration the night before the holiday, Martin said, “sounded like it was positive in terms of change.”

The new date also makes it “a little easier for us to find volunteers to help run the event as well,” Martin added. Depending on how hosting the event on July 3 goes, the city could consider doing the same thing next year.

Woodstock also has moved its Fourth of July celebration from the fourth to the fifth.

The town had been waiting to book the fireworks display — which takes place at Woodstock Union High School — until after the bond vote for a new school, Woodstock Municipal Manager Eric Duffy said in a phone interview last month. If the March bond vote had passed, construction would be underway, and they would be unable to use the school grounds.

In late March, after the bond vote failed, town officials reached out to fireworks companies and learned they were booked up for the Fourth of July, but not the fifth.

“We figured it was the second best option we could do for the residents,” Duffy said.

FIREWORKS

Brownsville: July 3, dusk, Ascutney Outdoors, 449 Ski Tow Road.

Claremont: July 3, 9:30 p.m., Monadnock Park, 190 Broad St.

Grafton: July 6, dusk, Grafton Recreation Field, Prescott Hill Road.

Fairlee; July 4, around 9 p.m., over Lake Morey.

Hartford/Wilder: July 4, between 9:20 and 9:30 p.m., Kilowatt South Park, 61 Passumpsic Ave. (Rain date: July 5)

Hartland: July 4, 9 p.m., Hartland Recreation Center, 9 Route 12.

Lebanon (laser light show): July 4, 9:20 p.m., visible from Colburn Park, 51 N. Park St.

Randolph: July 3, dusk, Farr’s Hill, Elm Street.

Sunapee (drone show): June 29, 9 p.m., Ben Mere Park, 1 Lake Ave.

Vershire: July 6, dusk, Vershire Town Center, 27 Vershire Center Roa d.

Woodstock: July 5, dusk, Woodstock Union High School, 100 Amsden Way.

Woodsville/Wells River: July 4, 10 p.m., Woodsville Community Field, 28 Connecticut St.

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