- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2008

Abington, Mass., knows how to celebrate the Fourth of July - a day early. Since 1976, a band has played, people have danced, families have reunited with picnic blankets in hand, and the children have paraded through town on July 3. And they’ve always closed out the night with the largest fireworks show south of Boston.

But this year, rockets won’t be glaring red. The party is shelved.

“The last time we pulled the plug, you could hear a pin drop that day,” said resident Bob Baker, who heads the Abington Night Before the 4th Celebration. “It was a ghost town.”

For only the second time since 1976, funds have come up short against rising costs of fireworks, but Abington isn’t the only town missing a big bang this year. Backlogged orders from Chinese fireworks manufacturers and the spike in costs of imported fireworks are putting the squeeze on fireworks companies across the country, and some towns have canceled their displays because fireworks simply are too expensive.

Video:With prices up, fireworks sales may fizzle

Some of the bigger companies say they have enough stockpiles for the weekend, in spite of the 10 percent to 15 percent of Chinese fireworks still undelivered, though shows scheduled for later in the year are uncertain. The extra expense is proving too much for smaller communities, especially those that fund fireworks shows with private money.

Mr. Baker said the cost for a fireworks show has nearly doubled since he started fundraising for the yearly celebration in 1987 and would have jumped more than 25 percent this year alone.

In Billings, Mont., where the Yellowstone County Tavern Association has raised the private donations sponsoring July Fourth fireworks for the past decade, the cost of a show has quadrupled. This year, the association donated the money toward community charities.

“If we could do the same show that we did, if the cost wasn’t so terribly high, it wouldn’t be such a burden,” said Cam Schieno, the association’s vice president and owner of Montana Chad’s bar. “We are always proactive in the community. We’ve just decided to spend our money on a way that is more beneficial to the community.”

But skyrocketing costs and shortages of imported fireworks are giving a July Fourth boom to small American fireworks manufacturers.

The Chinese fireworks industry, the major supplier in the United States, has increased prices and cut the number of ports from which explosives are shipped because of mishaps.

Specialty European fireworks cost more, too, thanks to the weakening dollar. Because of the extra expense and delay, some U.S. retailers are turning to small domestic fireworks manufacturers.

“What we would typically buy from our European manufacturers, we are buying from our manufacturers in the United States,” said Matt Shea, general sales manager of Atlas PyroVision Productions. He said European fireworks cost 50 percent to 60 percent more this year than last and that he doubled his order from Cuba, N.Y.-based Grand Fireworks. This year, a fifth of his fireworks will be American-made.

“It’s giving the domestic producers of fireworks the opportunity to shine, and this year, they’re all coming to the plate, and I think they’re doing well,” he said.

Historically an industry run in the United States by generations-old Italian-American families, more than 90 percent of fireworks business has moved to China in the past few decades because of rising labor costs and an unrelenting pursuit of cheaper explosives. Yearly additions to government fees and regulations also have weakened the American fireworks industry.

A few domestic companies still supply pyrotechnics for professional shows, and their business has exploded in anticipation of the year’s biggest fireworks week.

“I’m turning down business,” said Bill Bahr, owner of Red Dragon Manufacturing in Freehold, N.J. He said business has increased 90 percent since last year and he expects orders to grow next year. “We can’t meet the demand.”

Bill Miller makes all the fireworks for Grand Fireworks and said he could have easily tripled or quadrupled his business this year.

“But we just stopped taking orders after a while,” he said. “And [the rush isn’t] going to go away real soon. There’s not enough companies in the United States to pick up the slack.”

Although Chinese competition has driven down prices of fireworks for years, prices have risen since last fall because of more government regulation and higher costs for raw materials. American-made fireworks still cost several times more than their Chinese competition, but some in the industry think the increased prices, coupled with higher shipping costs, may bode well for domestic makers.

“On a manufacturing end, it’s now becoming more attractive to increase the percentage of what you’re buying from the United States,” Mr. Shea said. “Will that continue? I think it will. It’s a correction in the market. Whereas we relied heavily on overseas, now we’re relying more on the United States. I don’t see in the next five years that we would phase out any Chinese importation. It’s still a competitive advantage - just not as much of one.”

Even with rising costs of imports, the future is uncertain for the American manufacturers that make in-house specialty fireworks. Starting up a fireworks company requires lots of regulation and years of training.

“Most [manufacturing companies] have gone out of business because they can’t compete or if they do manufacture, they manufacture for themselves,” said Mr. Miller. “It’s almost a lost art. And it’s a lot hand work. It’s tedious. You have to love it to do it. And there’s always a dangerous element to it.”

In the meantime, consumers will have to pay the higher costs, said James Stajos, vice president of retail operations at the Michigan-based Big Fireworks.

“Prices in China would have to increase a lot more before it will really affect the U.S. market,” said George Reichenbach manager for Reichenbach Fireworks. “Even though prices are rising, they’re all in competition with each other, and they’re still a lot cheaper than the world market.”

Either way, Mr. Baker said, he plans to start planning immediately for the July 3 celebration next year.

“Everyone tells me I’m crazy, but I’m sticking with it,” he said. “The only bright thing about it is that I’ve had a lot of phone calls from people who want to help next year.”

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