Freedom isn't free and neither are the fireworks to celebrate it.
Numerous municipalities throughout Pinellas will spend $10,000 to $45,000 each for fireworks tonight as residents celebrate America's independence. Professional displays across the country run the gamut in price from about $10,000 for a small town to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that will be spent on Macy's Ignite the Night in New York.
Just as the prices and the high-flying components of a show vary, so do the ways they are financed. Some cities pick up the whole tab while others call on resident donations and corporate sponsorships.
ST. PETERSBURG: "We did look for a bank sponsor and that fell through," said Polly Brannon, of St. Petersburg's special events office. So the city will pay the $18,000 cost of its fireworks launched from Spa Beach Park. About $2,500 of the cost will be offset by fees vendors pay to be at the event.
Clear Channel used to sponsor a $30,000 display in St. Petersburg but that funding stopped several years ago. Still, Brannon said city representatives feel strongly the show must go on.
"We really do feel it's a tradition our citizens feel is important. It's viewed by such a large number of our citizens from so many areas," she said. "Over a long holiday weekend, we usually estimate around 100,000 people" watch from their neighborhoods or along the waterfront.
Beyond enjoyment and tradition, Brannon thinks cities that organize professional shows have fewer residents opting to light their own fireworks and to risk injury.
REDINGTON SHORES: Palms, peonies, falling leaves and other fireworks bursting over the skies of Redington Shores will cost $16,000, the bulk of which the city is paying for. North Redington Beach is chipping in $2,000, and residents and businesses have donated $3,500.
"With the ongoing economic challenges communities are facing, cities are having a hard time financing" fireworks, said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association.
When other year-round programs are slashed from shrinking budgets, some might wonder why a municipality still spends as much as $1,000 per minute on July Fourth fireworks?
"It's the one holiday regardless of religion and ethnic background in the USA when we all come together as a community to celebrate our independence, something many countries can't do," Heckman said. "Everybody thinks of fireworks on the Fourth of July. It is ingrained in who we are from the time we were very small."
PINELLAS PARK: The city hasn't paid for its fireworks in several years, said city spokesman Tim Caddell. Recently Freedom Fest has been held in a city park, funded by outside sponsors. But they fell short of funds this year, so it has been called off.
"The city doesn't have the money for all that stuff anymore," Pinellas Park spokesman Tim Caddell said.
MADEIRA BEACH: The city is doubling what it spends on fireworks this year from $10,000 to $20,000. Part of the increase is because the display will be shot from a barge on the water behind Archibald Park. The city is renting the barge for $5,500.
"It's going to be little longer in duration and more grandiose. We did a really good job of preparing and budgeting for it," said City Manager Shane Crawford, adding that Madeira Beach doesn't hold many other celebrations besides July Fourth.
CLEARWATER: The Coachman Park display will cost more than double St. Petersburg's, coming in at $45,000. It's financed mostly by the city though Bright House is a sponsor, putting $7,000 toward the tab, according to Bryan Craig, the city's events and festivals coordinator.
Largo: The city hasn't paid for its fireworks display in four years. This year eight businesses including a Hampton Inn, Pinch a Penny Pool Supply and Biltmore Construction are donating $1,000 to $3,000 to sponsor the town's $13,000 show at Largo Central Park.
Treasure Island: The city is paying for its fireworks bill of $10,000, while various businesses are sponsoring other festivities throughout the day.
The patriotic tradition is also an economic boon for the professional fireworks companies. Orlando-based Creative Pyrotechnics will orchestrate nine shows around Florida today, including St. Petersburg's and Madeira Beach's, and a total of 19 throughout the week.
"This is absolutely the busiest time of the year," said E.J. Weppel, the company's owner. Independence Day is about three times busier than New Year's Eve. He has just two full-time employees to handle weddings and other events throughout the year but will employ about 25 contractors for July Fourth.
He fires all of his shows electronically, which means the shells or explosives are laid out so they are all wired to a central control panel that can be operated from a distance. This is safer and allows most shows to be run by just one pyrotechnician, Weppel said.
He's hoping Florida will be spared its typical summer showers tonight.
"As long as it's not a torrential downpour, you can fire right through the rain if the shells are dry," Weppel said.
He likes to fire St. Petersburg's show himself because he enjoys working with the city and fire officials. It will have around 2,000 shells, which will inspire plenty of "oohs" and "aahs." But to offer a comparison to the really big shows, the Macy's display in New York will have 40,000 shells.
GULFPORT: The city's $20,000 show, financed by the city, is on the roster of Pennsylvania-based Pyrotecnico, will put on 650 shows this week, according to Rocco Vitale, whose great-grandfather founded the company in 1889 in Italy.
"We try throughout the year to get people trained and licensed. We'll have a couple thousand people working for us around July 4," Vitale said. Pyrotecnico's website has a link year-round for people to sign up for training classes in six states including Florida once a background check is conducted.
Many July 4 pyrotechnicians are coaches and teachers who aren't working in the summer, said Heckman, the American Pyrotechnics director, "and a lot of volunteer fire people. They love to shoot off fireworks, believe it or not."
Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or [email protected]
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