After two years of muted or canceled July 4 celebrations during the pandemic, municipalities are facing a new challenge: the rising cost of fireworks.
City officials had to find additional funds within their budgets or seek outside funding sources for the fireworks, which were already often the biggest expense of any celebration.
Last year, Hartland paid $7,000 for fireworks at its Old Home Days celebration on July 4. This year, it has increased to $10,000. The total budget for Old Home Days is $11,000, according to Hartland City Manager Dave Ormiston.
“We have a bit of room in the budget this year, so we were able to absorb that,” Ormiston said. “Next year we will have to budget more. But obviously the city assumes a good sum here.
The price increases follow national inflation trends and supply chain difficulties that have plagued nearly every industry. Rising transportation costs are of particular concern for fireworks companies. Five years ago, it cost $5,000 to ship a container of fireworks from China; this year it cost $45,000, said Tom Swenson, general manager of operations, of Northstar Fireworks, based in East Montpelier, Vermont, which organizes fireworks shows in the twin states, including in Hartland.
“It’s just shipping, it’s not even a product,” Swenson said. “It’s out of control.”
Higher spending on gasoline, labor and insurance also contributed to higher costs. As a result, Northstar has asked cities to commit to a minimum of $10,000 for July 4 fireworks. Those who have already spent $10,000 have been asked to increase their fireworks budget by 30%.
“We probably should have charged double, (but) we wanted to keep some of our customers local, so instead of blasting them higher, we said let’s meet in the middle,” Swenson said. “Our margins have gotten a lot smaller, but we’re okay with that because we want towns like Hartland and Brownsville to have a show.”
There were only two or three cities that decided to cancel a show with Northstar, Swenson said. City administrator Mike Samson decided to cancel the Canaan show rather than ask the Cardigan Mountain School, which traditionally funds the show, to double its donation.
“It’s a pretty big jump,” Samson said of the increase from $5,000 to $10,000. “I just don’t think morally I can ask the donor to increase that donation.”
The cost of fireworks has remained largely stable for communities; Samson said that in his 12 years as city administrator, it was always $5,000. Lebanon has spent $5,000 on a 20-minute July 4 show at Storrs Hill for many years, said Paul Coats, director of Lebanon’s recreation, arts and parks department. This year, the department will spend $10,000. The additional $5,000 will come from revenue from races like the Shamrock Shuffle 5K, which typically go to improvement projects in city parks.
“It wasn’t what we expected to do this year, but when it came up in front of us that way, where they said if you want us to come it would cost that much, we said we were going need to raise that money somehow,” Coats said. “We didn’t want to have a 4th of July celebration without fireworks being part of it.”
From 2016 to 2019, Lebanon held two fireworks shows each summer: one on July 4 and one as part of its end-of-summer celebration at the end of August. In 2020, both fireworks were canceled and both returned in 2021. This year the city is returning to a single fireworks display on the Fourth. The staff had already thought about changing the end of summer party before the cost increased.
“That’s one of the factors that has certainly helped push us beyond our limits, but we also know that fireworks have an impact on the community and the wildlife that live here. So keeping fireworks in Lebanon to one night a year makes sense from a variety of perspectives, and this increased cost helps solidify that decision,” Coats said.
Claremont budgeted $10,000 for its July 4 fireworks display at Monadnock Park, which the city had largely provided through fundraising efforts by local businesses when Northstar asked them to provide an additional $2,000, said Justin Martin, Superintendent of Recreation Programs. The city received a grant from Walmart to cover the difference.
“This year’s $12,000 is of the same caliber as last year’s $10,000,” Martin said.
Hartford Parks and Recreation Director Scott Hausler said the city, which relies on its budget and donations to fund its July 4 exhibit, was able to absorb the $2,000 cost. Fairlee is budgeting $6,000 for its display above Morey Lake and has been asked to raise $4,000 by Northstar, city administrator Tad Nunez said.
“The good news is that we have an anonymous donor that puts us above $10,000, but going forward I will be recommending to my board of directors when we set our budget this fall that if they wish to continue, they put it at $10,000 because as much as you want to have an anonymous donor every year, that may not happen,” Nunez said.
Woodsville, which is hosting a joint celebration with Vermont neighbor Wells River, also got a $2,000 raise.
“We just had to look very carefully at our budget,” said Gary Scruton, chairman of the Woodsville/Wells River July 4 committee. The total budget for the event is $20,000 and is funded by area businesses, cities and towns. “Granted, our biggest expense is the fireworks, so we have to be very careful about how we fundraise.”
The person making his fireworks is retiring, and as the committee begins its search for a new supplier, there are fears the cost will continue to rise, Scruton said.
Stephen Pelkey, owner and CEO of Newport-based Atlas Fireworks, said municipalities that were spending between $8,000 and $10,000 before the pandemic were now spending between $10,000 and $12,000. Like Northstar, Atlas has seen skyrocketing shipping costs. Before the pandemic began, it cost $10,000 to $12,000 to ship a 40ft container from countries in the Far East, including China. Now it costs around $38,000, which is “nearly half the cost of the actual value in the container,” Pelkey said. Then there are additional costs to ship the fireworks from where the ships dock to Newport.
“More and more fireworks companies are struggling with price increases of 35 to 40 percent,” Pelkey said. “We can’t, because Atlas as a company can’t pass that on to the consumer, because the consumer won’t accept it.”
Instead, Atlas increased the cost of municipal displays and retail fireworks by 15% to 18%. They also face a labor shortage. During the pandemic, pyrotechnicians left for other jobs in other states, and Atlas had to rebuild its workforce. Although they have enough employees for July 4, Pelkey pointed out that employees are required to complete an apprenticeship and other training.
“You just can’t let someone come out on the street and say, ‘I want to shoot fireworks,'” he said. “You need experience, and unfortunately it takes about a year or two to groom a licensed pyrotechnician.”
Swenson and Pelkey said they were able to get the same variety of fireworks they usually get and the shows will generally be the same as in previous years.
Swenson said he expects costs to continue to rise next year, which could impact how cities approach fireworks in years to come. Several cities might need to come together to produce a large multi-city show.
“These small towns won’t be able to afford it anymore,” he said. “That’s where I see the way forward, Hartland, Hartford, Brownsville, are going to have to come together and put on a show for Windsor County.”
Liz Sauchelli can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3221.