Sunday, September 23, 2018
Business

A decade later, Florida's fireworks industry is stuck in neutral

TAMPA — For a cutthroat industry built on big bangs, bright lights and the occasional lawsuit, local fireworks sellers have been quiet this year.

Court cases between fireworks retailers and area governments sputtered out or were closed, and no new industry-related lawsuits were filed in Hillsborough, Pasco or Pinellas counties.

The reason: a decade-old state law that essentially froze the industry by preventing new fireworks businesses from selling to consumers and restricting existing businesses from opening new locations or applying for new permits.

"We have whatever we had prior to March of 2007," said Galaxy Fireworks president Sharon Hunnewell-Johnson. Her business, and that of her competitors, has been restricted to the same number of seasonal tents and permanent storefronts.

She's in favor of the freeze. Some judges aren't.

"Everybody expected the freeze to be temporary... inactivity has created confusion" Hillsborough circuit judge Paul Huey wrote in a 2015 judgement in favor of Phantom Fireworks. The Ohio-based fireworks chain was suing the City of Tampa for denying it a permit after it relocated a Clearwater store to Gandy Boulevard in South Tampa.

The state law also prevents local governments from passing new regulations that interfere with "the right to purchase, sell, use, or possess consumer fireworks in this state."

The catch: The only legal reason consumers can buy fireworks from a Florida retail store is for agricultural purposes — like scaring birds away from their crops. (Hunnewell-Johnson said there are some exceptions for religious or ceremonial events.)

"We know the real deal is most of the customers who are purchasing the fireworks are not using them for agricultural purposes," said Tampa fire chief Tom Forward. But his office only responds when things go wrong.

Locally, fireworks retailers comply with the state's fire marshal regulations, Forward said. And except for neighborhood squabbles over fireworks use, he rarely hears about problems with the fireworks industry these days.

There hasn't been a major fireworks incident in the Tampa Bay region since an arsonist set off a chain reaction in a Pasco County fireworks tent in 2007.

Maybe that's because fireworks technology is improving, said Hunnewell-Johnson. Maybe people are being more careful, Forward said.

Both sides are urging people to stay safe this holiday season, which could give them another year of stability in the industry.

Hunnewell-Johnson rattles off the rules: "Don't allow children near the fireworks, always keep a bucket of water or a fire extinguisher nearby, do not mix alcohol and lighting fireworks."

Ultimately, she said, it's up to the consumer.

"We can't control stupidity."

Contact Alli Knothe at [email protected] Follow @KnotheA. Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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