US fireworks industry in biggest slump since Vietnam War era

Tue Jul 3, 2012 11:43pm IST

* Hard times, tight budgets curtail fireworks displays

* Fourth of July holiday long associated with fireworks

* Power outages, wildfire fears cause cancellations

By Mathew Murphy

NEW YORK, July 3 (Reuters) - As millions of Americans celebrate Independence Day on Wednesday, there are some whose holiday won't be going off with a bang.

One of America's top fireworks firms said the industry, still suffering due to the nation's economic woes, is experiencing its toughest times since the Vietnam War era when the country was divided over such flashy displays of patriotism.

"What we are seeing now in the fireworks industry is equivalent to what happened in the '70s," said Philip Butler, vice president of Fireworks by Grucci, based in New York.

"At that time, unfortunately, people were tending more to burn the flag than to wave it. Fireworks suffered until 1976 when we celebrated the bicentennial and then they came back considerably," he said.

About $217 million will be spent on an estimated 14,000 Fourth of July fireworks displays across America, a Grucci spokesman said. But 70 percent of those shows will be at private or corporate events in premier locations like the Hamptons, Malibu, Lake Tahoe and the Jersey Shore, according to Grucci.

Tight local budgets - as well as wildfire threats - have forced at least 100 communities from Tanglewood Park, North Carolina, to Half Moon Bay, California, to forego the traditional Fourth of July razzle dazzle.

Some localities that are on high fire alert due to heat and dry conditions have banned fireworks displays. Other fireworks shows were canceled amid lingering power outages from the Midwest to the mid-Atlantic region caused by fierce storms spawned by record heat.

In Malden, Massachusetts, there will be no fireworks for the first time in years after the Malden Airport Board decided the money could be better spent elsewhere.

"It was really becoming a burden on the community soliciting for fireworks when so many other good causes were also soliciting for their support," said airport manager Barb Crayne.

A $1 million hole in the Lynwood City Council's budget caused the California town to end its tradition of Fourth of July fireworks. Its Candy Cane Lane Parade and Winter Wonderland Christmas events have also been axed.

SALES IN TEXAS

A rare spot of good news for fireworks retailers comes from Texas. Two-thirds of the 254 counties in Texas approved the sale of fireworks to the public after eliminating last year's ban put in place because of fire concerns amid a record drought.

Sales were allowed only in the week leading to Independence Day and the week before New Year's Eve. Fireworks companies say that is not enough to protect the livelihood of retailers.

"It would be kind of like asking Wal-Mart to pay all their expenses for six months, but, oh by the way, you can't open up any of your stores and you can't sell anything," said Luke Girdley, vice president of Alamo Fireworks, based in San Antonio.

For at least one city, fireworks may be a way to raise funds through high-priced tickets sales. In New York, $200 tickets are being sold to a cordoned off section of a public park along the Hudson River that promises stunning views of the Macy's fireworks show.

Grucci's Butler said this year's shows would be fewer and cost far less than in previous years. Still, each Grucci fireworks show requires eight technicians working up to four days for the setup alone.

"The average spend for fireworks shows now is around $15,500, which is a small budget and people tend to space out the fireworks which makes for a less interesting show," he said.

His company will provide the pyrotechnics for about 80 shows around America on Wednesday, down slightly from last year.

Butler, who has been in the fireworks business since he married Donna Grucci, now president of the fifth-generation company, says despite the economic challenges local governments should not scrimp on tradition.

"Shame on them. It's like taking on Mom and apple pie," he said. "They aren't saving much compared to their overall budget but it makes them look good. This is really the most important day of the year to have fireworks."

Nearly two dozen Colorado communities have canceled their Fourth of July fireworks displays as firefighters battle raging wildfires. Some Colorado towns like Estes Park will postpone fireworks celebrations until the danger clears.

Other communities have banned fireworks displays because of heat and dry conditions. Affected areas include the Tennessee city of Springfield, a dozen communities in Ohio including Kent, Richmond, Newark and Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, and the Indiana towns of Brownsburg, Hartford City, New Palestine, Beech Grove, Greenfield, Kokomo, Auburn and Delphi. (Additional reporting by Tim Ghianni and Kim Palmer; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Will Dunham)

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