Money tight, but towns still try to dazzle

By Vivian Yee
Globe Correspondent / July 3, 2011

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Ken Tavares is “thrilled,’’ he says.

He is thrilled that the Massachusetts National Guard is sending howitzers to Plymouth for Independence Day, thrilled - despite his allegiance to the Democratic Party - that Senator Scott Brown is marching in his town’s July Fourth parade, thrilled to see a barrage of fireworks soar above Plymouth Harbor.

But mostly, the chairman of the town’s July Fourth celebration committee is thrilled that the festivities are happening at all.

“We feel fortunate that we’ve been able to do it,’’ Tavares said.

With both donations and municipal funding scarce during the recession-strained summer of 2009, the community known as “America’s Hometown’’ barely scraped together enough funding to light up the skies over its harbor, scrapping its traditional parade to preserve the fireworks. in 2010, a last-ditch fund-raising effort and budget cuts made both the parade and fireworks possible. This year, Tavares had to hire fewer bands for the parade because volunteers raised $86,000, a bit short of the $100,000 goal.

Parades and fireworks are spectacles many towns took for granted until two or three summers ago, when recession blues began forcing painful bottom lines. Keeping the rockets’ red glare meant sacrificing a town job. Hiring a band meant more cuts to local schools. Allowing the parade to march on meant shuttering a library.

Faced with the prospect of a quiet, dark Independence Day, many town committees staged emergency fund-raising drives, managing to save some or all of the festivities. In Lowell, a last-minute donation from a local bank meant the city could have fireworks without laying off another municipal worker in 2009. But others, such as Ipswich, Abington, and Methuen, canceled their shows altogether.

This year, with the economy recovering sluggishly, industry watchers and town officials say several forces have combined to return the fireworks - although perhaps a bit smaller in scale - to small communities. Local businesses and residents’ willingness to contribute has been key, they say.

“We are actually seeing a comeback,’’ said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. “In times like what we’re facing, it’s somewhat depressing, and so I think communities are doing everything they can to ensure that this celebration continues.’’

Fewer municipal governments than ever before are paying for celebrations, instead funding them through donations raised by volunteer committees, according to fireworks industry watchers. Though local dollars are still hard to come by, more residents are saving money by staying home instead of leaving for the weekend, and they clamor for town-sponsored festivities.

“The need for the event has actually increased, but at the same time, it’s been harder to raise the money,’’ said Matt Shea, vice president of Jaffrey, N.H.-based Atlas Pyrotechnics, which is supplying nearly 300 New England towns with fireworks this year.

And if the shows do go on, it is often because communities have negotiated better deals by scaling back or scheduling fireworks for a day other than July Fourth.

Mayor William Manzi of Methuen canceled the town’s $35,000 Independence Day fireworks for the first time in decades in 2009, when the local government faced a $4 million deficit. To residents’ relief, the show returned in 2010 - but only because Manzi negotiated a 50 percent discount on the fireworks contract by scheduling them for last night and toning down the show. This year, he got the same deal.

The town of Marion halved its costs by moving its fireworks from July 3 to Friday. Without the rescheduling, Marion’s Independence Day fund-raising effort would have fallen nearly $14,000 short, said Chris Collings, the July Fourth committee chairman. Even so, a gap remained as of Thursday: Collings said many families that had given small donations in the past could not afford to do so this year, making fund-raising difficult.

“The cost of gas, health care, school fees - that’s where the money goes instead, and so it was very nearly just too expensive for us to enjoy fireworks,’’ he said.

Several other towns, including North Andover, Pepperell, Weymouth, and Fitchburg, either have a long-standing tradition of holding fireworks on a day other than July Fourth or have rescheduled their shows to obtain a discount. Not only do pyrotechnics companies charge less on the other days, but towns also avoid the major expense of paying police and firefighter overtime by moving the festivities away from the holiday.

Such personnel expenses can cost as much as $40,000, as in Wilmington, where the town covers employee pay and cleanup and fund-raising pays for the remaining $50,000. To help defray the town’s expenses in a time of tight budgets, the Fun on the Fourth Committee contacted nearly every Wilmington resident to participate in Liberty Mutual Insurance’s Bring Back the Fourth contest, which awards 10 winning municipalities $10,000 to stage celebrations. Wilmington has won the contest two years running.

“For us, it’s a matter of community spirit,’’ Fun on the Fourth chairman Scott Garrant said. “While I won’t say finances aren’t a problem, we work hard and the town certainly steps up.’’

In the towns that have rescued their fireworks and parades, people are proud that their friends and neighbors have come together to save what they see as a true community event. A can-do attitude infuses the volunteers who, in some cases, start fund-raising for the next year’s celebration on July 5.

“It’s been extremely difficult, but this town has a way of coming together,’’ said Carol Gates, chairwoman of Pepperell’s Fourth of July Committee, which used everything from a raffle to game of a cow patty bingo to raise $30,000. “If you’ve never seen a small town celebrate July Fourth, it’s definitely something to watch.’’

Seeing fireworks is practically a constitutional right in Amesbury, which takes pride in its reputation as a premier Independence Day destination, Amesbury Days committee chairwoman Kate Broughton said. By Thursday, Amesbury volunteers had passed the hat and relied on local businesses to raise about $11,000 for a $15,000 fireworks bill.

“In Amesbury, we’re holding our ground,’’ Broughton said.

Other communities have been less lucky: Abington, which lost its fireworks in 2009 amid budgetary fights and has not had them since, tried to bring them back by entering the Liberty Mutual contest, but lost. Its July Fourth committee disbanded last summer.

But most will be able to put on a dazzling display this year.

“We could always use more money, but people seem to come together,’’ said Mike Delfino, the president of Waltham’s celebration committee. “That’s what July Fourth is all about.’’

Vivian Yee can be reached at