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posted: 6/16/2012 8:00 AM

Most suburbs keeping fireworks displays

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  • Wauconda's annual Fourth of July fireworks take place in Cook Park.

       Wauconda's annual Fourth of July fireworks take place in Cook Park.
    Paul Valade | Staff Photographer 2007

  • Fourth of July fireworks at Melas Park in Mount Prospect. the Lions Club has had to improvise to continue to provide fireworks despite funding challenges.

       Fourth of July fireworks at Melas Park in Mount Prospect. the Lions Club has had to improvise to continue to provide fireworks despite funding challenges.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer 2004

 
By David Conway
dconway@dailyherald.com

Jon Wilson's livelihood depends upon the irrevocable link between fireworks and the 4th of July.

A show coordinator at Pyrotecnico, the company that organizes the fireworks display in Bartlett and other towns, Wilson said he has seen many cities reduce their shows as the economy continues to struggle and local governments are forced to work with limited budgets.

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Still, these colorful explosions are so essential to the celebration of our nation's birth that many communities find a way around those constraints and preserve their fireworks ceremonies.

"There's no question it's tradition," said Elgin Mayor David Kaptain, who has found a way to restore fireworks after a hiatus by working with adjacent towns.

Among other examples of suburban ingenuity in the face of challenge is the experience of the Mount Prospect Lions Club.

The club has typically received a contribution of $3,500 from the village of Mount Prospect to help put on fireworks displays at the Lions' annual village festival, but the event is largely privately funded. As contributions from local businesses declined, larger-than-usual donations from the village in 2008 and 2009 eased the pain.

When village contributions returned to a normal level as the village encountered its own budget problems and business donations remained depressed, the group had to find a new way to pay for the fireworks shows.

A sponsorship from Friedrichs Funeral Home helped, but the Lions needed more and appealed directly to citizens when other sources of revenue continued to dry up.

They started the Bang for a Buck program last year, placing cans in businesses around the village that ask for residents to donate a dollar or two to help pay for the fireworks.

The shows are crucial to the fair, which raises funds for local and national charities, local organizations, and aid for the hearing-and sight-impaired, said Lions Club President Barb Laz.

So far, the Bang for a Buck program has been a success: the 74th annual village festival will feature fireworks displays on July 4 and 8.

"We did not want to cut the second set of fireworks, so the Lions have had to come up with the money," Laz said. "It's thanks to funding from the village and funding from people in the village that we've been able to keep it."

Another approach

One way some suburbs have managed to introduce a fireworks display while not entirely un-cinching their belts is by banding together.

Northwest Fourth-Fest, a collaborative effort between Elgin, Hanover Park, Hanover Township and Hoffman Estates, will take place at the Sears Centre from July 4-8 and will feature a fireworks display on the 4th. The towns participating in what is being billed as the suburbs' "biggest 4th of July celebration" have a varied history when it comes to fireworks.

In Hoffman Estates, plans to increase the scale of the fireworks display were already in place before any deal was struck with other towns.

Mayor William McLeod said the event was a way to preserve the grand spectacle associated with 4th of July celebrations while keeping the price tag reasonable.

"We've seen community after community cut back," McLeod said. "We've decided to grow but also link together, so that it's not a significant cost for each city."

Elgin, on the other hand, has been without fireworks since 2009 -- much to the chagrin of its residents.

"We were constantly getting calls," Mayor Kaptain said. "'When are you going to bring the fireworks back?'"

The answer: as soon as the money made sense. Four years ago, the cost of putting on a half-hour fireworks show to the city of Elgin was $65,000, Kaptain said. Much of the cost lay in providing over 50 city employees to monitor the event.

By teaming up with other suburbs -- including newcomers to the fireworks scene Hanover Park and Hanover Township -- Elgin's total price tag for putting on Northwest Fourth-Fest is around $22,000.

Elgin is representative of a larger trend, according to Pyrotecnico's Wilson. Many cities have cut back on their fireworks displays or even dropped them entirely -- the city-run shows in Chicago, for example, were scaled back in 2010 and ended in 2011.

Largely, though, this occurred a couple of years ago. Cities that preserved their shows through that period are likely to maintain them going forward, Wilson said, and many who left the fireworks game are just beginning to return.

Not all survive

Still, with budgets tightening in both the private and public sector, fireworks shows aren't invincible.

In Roselle, like in Elgin, cuts left the village unable to fund the $25,000 display at Lake Park High School after 2009. The community staved off the cancellation of the event for a time: the Taste of Roselle committee sponsored the 2010 show, while the Roselle Chamber of Commerce and 10 local businesses teamed up to pay for a scaled-back display in 2011.

Eventually, though, a harsh economic reality set in; Roselle will be going without a fireworks show this year for the first time in decades. Assistant Village Administrator Jason Bielawski said the citizens of Roselle have generally been understanding of the move, perhaps due to the number of other shows residents can attend in nearby towns.

"I think people know we're not the only fireworks show in the area," Bielawski said.

Gurnee, like Elgin, saw its fireworks show end in 2010 and has seen significant public demand for the display's return. Unlike Elgin, the village hasn't found a way to make it work financially

Mayor Kristina Kovarik said the expense of public services -- including overtime and holiday pay for village employees -- made the show cost-prohibitive.

"There's only so much money to go around, and we're not willing to give up day-to-day services in order to fund the program right now," Kovarik said.

Even in places where fireworks are being preserved, some cuts were made. Towns that have cut back on their budget haven't returned to the level they were at five years ago, and many organizations are choosing shorter or less extravagant shows to save money, Wilson said.

The important thing for many towns is that the show goes on.

"You might have a city that's been doing this for 40 years," Wilson said. "We want them to continue, because, down the road, hopefully the economy swings back and we've kept that tradition alive."

Kaptain hopes Northwest Fourth-Fest goes well enough to bring it back for a second year, but even if it doesn't, he anticipates an effort to preserve the display in Elgin one way or another.

"I want to see what the community thinks," Kaptain said. "If it's something they want to do every year, we'll try to do that. If it's not, we could put up the $22,000 and have some other people try to raise the rest of the money to put the show on locally."

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