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Fireworks' flare and boom can put a dent in cities' budgets

People watch the 2010 show over Clearwater Harbor. This year’s tab: $45,000.

JIM DAMASKE | Times (2010)

People watch the 2010 show over Clearwater Harbor. This year’s tab: $45,000.

Freedom isn't free and neither are the fireworks to celebrate it.

Numerous municipalities throughout Pinellas will spend around $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 for citizen donations and corporate sponsorships.

"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 entire $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. 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 possibly getting hurt.

The tab for Clearwater's display in Coachman Park on the downtown waterfront will more than double St. Petersburg's, coming in at $45,000. It's financed mostly by the city, though Bright House Networks is a sponsor, putting $7,000 toward the tab, according to Bryan Craig, the city's events and festivals coordinator.

"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 year-round programs are slashed because of shrinking budgets, some might wonder why a municipality still spends as much as $1,000 per minute on Fourth of July 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 hasn't paid for its fireworks in several years, said city spokesman Tim Caddell. Recently, Freedom Fest has been held in a city park but funded by outside sponsors. However, they fell short of money this year, so it's been called off.

"The city doesn't have the money for all that stuff anymore," Pinellas Park spokesman Tim Caddell said.

Tarpon Springs hasn't lit up its skies since 2008 because of the cost and logistics, said City Manager Mark Lecouris. Instead, the city organizes a patriotic picnic that has been very successful. It will be held today from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Craig Park.

Oldsmar doesn't want to deal with competing fireworks, so it will have its celebration on Sept. 1.

Residents of Safety Harbor can check out that city's display at the Safety Harbor Marina. The city is covering the entire cost of $20,000.

Dunedin will split the $11,000 cost of its show tonight at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium with the Blue Jays, who conduct spring training at the stadium.

Largo hasn't paid for its fireworks display in four years. This year eight businesses, including the Hampton Inn, Pinch-A-Penny Pool Supply and Biltmore Construction, are donating $1,000 to $3,000 each to sponsor the town's $13,000 fireworks show at Largo Central Park.

The patriotic tradition is also an economic boon for 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 the Fourth of July holiday.

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. The show will utilize 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 use 40,000 shells.

Pennsylvania-based Pyrotecnico will put on 650 shows this week, according to Rocco Vitale, whose great-grandfather founded the company in 1889 in Italy. Gulfport's $20,000 show, financed by the city, is on its roster.

"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. A background check is required.

Many July Fourth pyrotechnicians are coaches and teachers who aren't working during the summer, Heckman said, adding, "and a lot of volunteer fire people. They love to shoot off fireworks, believe it or not."

Katherine Snow Smith can be contacted at (727) 893-8785 or kssmith@tampabay.com.

>>if you go

Where to watch

Here's a sampling of shows in North Pinellas. For a longer list of fireworks and other events today and tonight, visit tampabay.com/things-to-do. Search fireworks and related holiday activities.

Clearwater: Fireworks at 9:30 p.m. in Coachman Park downtown.

Safety Harbor: Fireworks at 9 p.m. See from the marina on Bayshore Boulevard

Dunedin: Fireworks at 9:30 p.m. at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium on Douglas Avenue.

Fireworks' flare and boom can put a dent in cities' budgets 07/03/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 3, 2012 7:12pm]

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