Fireworks extravaganza set for Bethany's July 4

After two disappointing years for the Fourth of July fireworks display in Bethany Beach, Town Manager Cliff Graviet pulled out all the stops in an effort to make sure the 2007 show would go off with a bang.

An eroded beach and resulting safety issues have put a stop to the traditional firing of the pyrotechnics from the beach where thousands gather for the event each year.

In 2005, the town was forced at the last minute to bring in a barge from which the fireworks could be safely shot for the beachfront spectators. It took help from Sen. George Howard Bunting to get the barge booked and permits for the sea-based show to be issued after a rare summer storm further narrowed the beach right before the holiday.

But while the show did go on, it disappeared into a murky haze — not of smoke, but of clouds. The show, of course, had to go on that night, despite the conditions. The town has never had the option of rescheduling, for weather or other reasons.

That problem came into play again in 2006, when severe storms crowded into the area late in the afternoon, looming on the northern horizon into the evening before finally descending on Bethany Beach with a pyrotechnics display from Mother Nature just more than an hour before the town’s fireworks display was due to start.

Some spectators remained on the beach, hopeful the rain might let up and the high-voltage fireworks scatter with the winds. But they did so in vain, and heedless of the danger they were in, because the storm quickly dumped a torrent of water onto the barge on which 2006’s fireworks were housed.

With no capability to preserve the shells from the weather and no back-up date to bring a barge back for a rescheduled show, the show was simply scrapped. Fourth of July 2006 went out with a bang, for sure, but ended with a whimper.

Barge and big company could overcome jinx

Though the town might have hoped to have beach replenishment work repair its beach in time for a 2007 show based right on a newly-widened shoreline, that is simply not to be. South Bethany and Bethany Beach are both still waiting for federal funding that might get the project moving after years of waiting.

In the meantime, Graviet had to decide how to make sure Fourth of July 2007 would end with a burst of color and a bang that was not the crack of lightning.

Graviet contacted two of the nation’s largest pyrotechnics firms, assured that they were the only ones capable of both planning a solid show shot from a barge and of easily rescheduling a show should weather impact the usually holiday schedule.

Only one responded: Pyrotecnico, a New Castle, Pa., firm that produces more than 2,000 events each year and has been employed by Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints NFL football teams, as well as a number of coastal resort communities and events nationwide.

Thus it came to be that Graviet presented to the Bethany Beach Town Council on Feb. 16 a contract with Pyrotecnico for $29,000 for the 2007 fireworks display, complete with the fireworks themselves, a barge and crew, and a tugboat and crew to bring the barge to its firing position off the coast.

Council members were full of praise for the contract document, which they said was a much better contract than with the town’s previous fireworks vendors.

Option could provide for rescheduling

It also contains a series of options that the prior contracts didn’t have: a 10-hour cancellation clause, provisions to cover the barge and its load of shells to protect them from any untimely weather and, perhaps most importantly, an on-site cancellation provision that would allow the town to reschedule the show for a $6,000 fee.

It’s the first time the town has had that option, and one which has been the repeated subject of talk from disappointed holiday revelers every time the show has had to be canceled in years past.

Graviet presented the contract while winter still lingered in the area for one primary reason: the Coast Guard requires a 135-day period during which permit applications for the fireworks to be fired from a barge must be in-hand at their headquarters. “This is earlier than we have ever brought it up before,” Graviet acknowledged.

Scrapping 2007 show considered by council

While most on the council were glad to hear of the new options in the contract, Council Member Lew Killmer had some reservations about approving it.

“I don’t want to be the grinch who stole the Fourth of July fireworks,” he began, “but this is a large price to pay because we don’t have a beach.”

With replenishment looking possible, if not likely, to start this fall, Killmer posited, would the town be better off canceling the 2007 fireworks entirely and planning to have a show shot from the widened beach in 2008?

Killmer pointed to the barge and tug costs as almost 50 percent of the price of the contract — a necessity to have the show in 2007, but likely not in 2008. The contract also comes up at a time when the town is staring in the face of continued transfer tax revenue fall-offs that are impacting the 2008-fiscal-year draft budget in which the fireworks contract would appear.

Graviet, however, noted that nearby Rehoboth Beach chooses to use a barge to shoot off its fireworks display for July 4th, simply because of the increased quality of display it provides.

And while council members were reluctant to join on the bandwagon with Killmer in considering the cancellation of the show for 2007, they were still looking at the fiscal bottom line.

Neighboring towns could contribute

Council Treasurer Jerry Dorfman questioned whether the town, which hosts many who live outside its limits when it comes time for the fireworks to hit the sky, should ask its neighbors, such as Ocean View and Millville, to help contribute toward the bill for putting on the show.

Vice-Mayor Tony McClenny said he felt that kind of request would be a legitimate one, and one that would sponsor a feeling of community cooperation between the neighboring towns.

McClenny was, however, unwavering in his feeling that canceling the show was out of the question.

“I’ve spoken with a lot of people. All of them want us to do it. They don’t care what it costs,” he said.

Council Member Tracy Mulligan said he also felt that while asking neighboring towns to contribute might be appropriate in the future and the town needed to consider reducing its expenses, that February was the wrong time to make that kind of request, with budget cycles for the towns working against them. It should be held regardless, he said.

“This is part of the character of the town. It’s a gesture from the town,” he said, adding that the town’s finances were being well-managed despite the reduced revenue.

Adding to the weight of feeling against a cancellation, Mayor Carol Olmstead even recalled a prior council that had made such a decision, on a 4-3 vote. She said they’d been forced to raise the issue again after deep public sentiment opposed the cancellation and had reversed themselves, deciding to hold the fireworks after all.

This council opted to skip that extra step, voting unanimously to accept the contract with Pyrotecnico that could potentially provide the town with its best Fourth of July fireworks display ever.

“Shell by shell, I can promise this will be a better show than the one we didn’t have last year and the one we shot into the clouds the year before,” Graviet added, to chuckles all around.