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Struggling cities cancel Fourth of July fireworks

Nearly 50 cash-strapped cities nationwide are forgoing fireworks festivities, choosing instead to retain jobs or, in the case of Montebello, give the money to food banks.

June 29, 2009|P.J. Huffstutter

EUCLID, OHIO — Mayor Bill Cervenik has spent a lifetime celebrating the Fourth of July curled up on a blanket in this city's Memorial Park beneath bursts of fireworks across a darkened Ohio sky.

People have long considered the fireworks a treasure of this Cleveland suburb, where flags fly year-round in neighborhoods of bungalows and stores post signs for passersby to "support our troops."

But the fireworks and singing along to "The Star-Spangled Banner" on a warm summer night -- and the police and firefighters needed to manage the 30,000 people who turn out -- don't come cheap.

So this year, Euclid will have no fireworks. "I'm 55 years old and I can't remember not going to one of these," Cervenik said.

As the economic crisis has dragged on, city leaders around the country say fireworks are a luxury they can no longer afford. Big and small, urban and rural, the skies will remain dark over at least four dozen communities nationwide come July 4.

"It came down to this: Did we want to spend $150,000 on something that would be over in a few hours?" Cervenik said. "Or did we want to use that money to keep city workers employed?"

The news has sparked outrage and protests among residents who long to preserve an American tradition that dates to 1777. They say that fireworks displays are more than a nod to nostalgia: They allow communities to come together, set aside their woes and build up town pride -- even if only for a few hours.

"Good times, bad times, there's always been fireworks," said Robert Baker, who heads the Fourth of July festival committee in Abington, Mass.

Baker, a shipping foreman with a shoe manufacturer, has been out of work for a year. The festival was quashed this month amid city budget fights.

"This is one more blow in a year of blow after blow," Baker said.

In San Jose, slumping tourism and dwindling sales tax receipts shut down the city's America Festival and its evening display over a half-mile stretch of Highway 87.

"We're faced with balancing an $84-million budget shortfall," said mayoral spokeswoman Michelle McGurk. "We don't have the money to support a lot of things we'd like to."

Some cities would rather feed their residents than entertain them. In the Los Angeles suburb of Montebello, where unemployment hovers at 12%, the City Council unanimously voted to use its $39,000 fireworks budget on donations to local food banks.

"The last food bank line I saw had more than 1,000 people in it," said Mayor Rosemarie Vasquez. "We figured that, instead of burning the money in the air, why not give it to people who need it."

In Lowell, Mass., Mayor Edward Caulfield canceled the city's annual show to help save one city job. He had already cut 48.

Big cities, such as Chicago and New York, have been able to keep their shows thanks to corporate sponsors, according to the American Pyrotechnics Assn.

But Julie Heckman, executive director of the association, said that smaller communities tended to rely on a combination of city funds and local donations to pay for their displays of patriotism.

When budgets grow tight, she said, towns are forced to be creative with less.

That was the case for Punta Gorda, Fla., a community of 17,000 on the Gulf Coast. The city, devastated in 2004 by Hurricane Charley, is still rebuilding itself. The recession hasn't helped.

When the city pulled its backing for the show over Charlotte Harbor last year, the town's Main Street association took over.

Fundraising has been slow. The group has raised only two-thirds of what it needs. The pyrotechnic company stepped in to help: It offered a discount, a shorter show and fewer explosions.

So a much smaller show will go on, but the city came up with extra activities to make up for the abbreviated fireworks: three-legged races, water balloon tosses, hula-hooping and key lime pie-making contests.

"What do those cost?" asked Linda Dobson, executive director of Main Street Punta Gorda. "Nothing."

In a few places, such as New Providence, N.J., a last-minute benefactor has stepped in to save the show.

After local newspapers wrote about how the town of 12,000 was canceling its holiday fireworks because of economic troubles, the local Investors Savings Bank stepped in and offered to cover the $15,000 bill.

Elsewhere, towns have just given up.

This will be the second year Carrollton, Texas, has canceled its $20,000 fireworks order and won't have street vendors hawking plates of barbecue and buttery corn on a stick.

Residents were furious last year, said Mayor Ronald Branson. City leaders promised to try to bring the fireworks back in 2009.

But as the economy grew worse in the north Texas town of 121,000, those hopes fizzled.

Faced with a $2.3-million budget shortfall, the city is weighing whether to close City Hall and its libraries one day a week and make City Council members -- who get paid $200 a month -- take a pay cut.

Voters are still calling, but not to complain.

Branson said they were pleading with him to use the fireworks money to put people to work fixing city sprinklers or planting trees.

Branson, though, is still hoping next year will be different.

"We all would like to get the fireworks going again," he said, "because it would mean the economy had turned around."

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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