Video: Recession mutes Fourth of July celebrations

msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 7/3/2009 7:49:36 AM ET 2009-07-03T11:49:36

The skies will be dark and silent over Colorado Springs, Colo., on Saturday. Because of the recession, city officials canceled their Fourth of July fireworks display, a three-decade-old extravaganza that was one of the biggest Independence Day parties in the state.

More than 50,000 people usually turn out for the show at Memorial Park, which traditionally features the Colorado Springs Philharmonic Orchestra booming not one, not two, but six howitzer cannons in time to Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” But this year, the army of donors who fund the pyrotechnics have cut back, and the city itself couldn’t find enough money to pay for the city crews who keep watch.

With the recession, now in its 19th month, eating away at state and local budgets everywhere, it will be a silent Fourth for many communities across the country that have canceled their annual shows.

In others, where planning was well under way, officials have decided to go ahead with this year’s celebrations but have already said they could eliminate next year’s displays.

Pyrotechnics not the only expense
Usually, as in Colorado Springs, local businesses or the Chamber of Commerce pay for the event itself. But for the cities themselves, “there are a lot of [other] costs involved,” said Allan Fung, mayor of Cranston, R.I.

There’s overtime for police, fire and emergency crews; a big public works cleanup effort; and liability insurance to consider, Fung said. Such expenses can be tough to justify when many communities are instituting or considering layoffs, service reductions and tax increases.

“This year, I had to shift my resources” to keep a municipal swimming pool open, Fung said.

Dozens of small and medium-size cities have made similar calculations this year:

  • Springfield, Mo., is hosting the National Fireworks Association’s annual convention next year, making this Independence Day an ideal opportunity to show off. But for the first time in 27 years, it canceled its annual Firefall celebration, which usually brings 70,000 people to Greene County.
  • In nearby Nixa, Mo., the Chamber of Commerce decided it couldn’t afford to spend $12,000 to salvage the annual Sky High celebration. City officials canceled funding because the collapse of the local construction industry sharply reduced tax revenue. When you take that much business out of a community, that hits everybody — hits the city, all our businesses,” Chamber President Sharon Whitehill Gray said..
  • In Flint, Mich., which has laid off some city workers to address a $14 million budget deficit, officials canceled the annual Fireworks Festival before the local Downtown Development Authority stepped in last month with a $10,000 donation. Last week, the city canceled the show again. A city spokesman said the donation came too late for officials to complete plans for police and other services “in the midst of staff reduction.”
  • Similarly, officials in Charles Town, W.Va., held out hope that public donations would salvage their annual show, which they said lost $17,000 last year. But the fundraising drive fell short, and the display was canceled Wednesday.

Communities, businesses pass the hat
In numerous other communities, residents and businesses have decided that the national birthday tradition is worth preserving, even in rough times.

“These are the things people look forward to,” said David Roefaro, mayor of Utica, N.Y., where officials and organizers shifted spending from other “non-essential” programs to celebrate Independence Day.

The inner workings of fireworks

“These are the things people want to come out and see,” Roefaro said. “They love the fireworks. It’s part of America.”

In Gilbertsville, Ky., Walter Taylor, managing partner of Kentucky Dam Marina, teamed up with other businesses and community leaders to raise $5,000 to save the annual show at Lake Bartley Resort after the state canceled July Fourth displays in state parks.

“It didn’t take us maybe an hour to get the funds necessary to have a decent show, and that’s what we’ve done,” Taylor said. “We just didn’t want it to stop.”

Similar late fundraising drives rescued major fireworks shows in Cleveland; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Tulsa, Okla.; Fort Myers, Fla.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Kailua, Hawaii.

“The private sponsors and businesses have stepped up huge,” said Scott Carvill of Kailua, where a community group raised tens of thousands of dollars to save the city’s celebration.

In other communities where planning was already well under way, the show will go on this year — but next year is another story.

One of the country’s biggest celebrations, the Dueling Barges Fireworks Extravaganza in New Orleans, could be bowing out this weekend. The display, ranked the nation’s best in a survey by the online travel agency priceline.com, draws nearly a quarter-million people a year, but organizers said they had no money to continue next year.

In Salt Lake City, Utah, this weekend’s annual show at Sugar House Park, the biggest in the state, also could be the last after the Park Authority said it needed to shift its resources to upkeep. Lex Hemphill, president of the Park Authority board, said the authority’s $27,000 share of the expenses ate up nearly half of its annual rental revenue.

“Nobody on the board is happy to be facing this,” Hemphill said. But “we just have a greater demand for the use of that money now than fireworks.”

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