Fireworks flew at the February 6 Visalia City Council meeting as two council members argued over the merits of the Freedom Celebration. The fireworks show was unexpectedly canceled in 2015 when the city could not find a service group to host it.
During its December 16 meeting Mayor Warren Gubler outlined 10 goals for his term as mayor. Reviving the fireworks show was fourth on his list. However, Councilmember Steve Nelsen said during the February meeting that the show was a waste of time, money and effort, and he objected to it even being on the agenda.
The consent calendar item authorizes city staff to request a non-profit or service group to host the Fourth of July fireworks event, and offers a one-time $25,000 grant.
According to the staff report, “$10,000 would be for fireworks, $10,000 as a first-year-only incentive given that the event would be held in five months, which does not give an organization a lot of time to fund raise, and $5,000 for City staff time including police, fire and parks and recreation employees to assist in the event.”
Nelsen pulled the item off of the consent calendar to publicly discuss his opposition to the city’s paying the tab. He said that when the Freedom Celebration was canceled two years ago he did not see one newspaper article nor did he get any calls of complaint.
The Voice did publish an article on May 5, 2015, generating significant reader comment.
Nelsen said that the only people who contacted him were Mineral King Bowl neighbors who threw Fourth of July parties and wanted to know when the fireworks show was coming back.
Gubler said that the Freedom Celebration event was never about making money but an opportunity to show our patriotism and celebrate the birth of our nation, adding that he felt there had been an increase in illegal use of fireworks and accidental fires as a result of the Freedom Show’s being canceled. He suggested that Visalia use part of the $40,000 in fines each year from illegal use of fireworks to fund the show.
“I hate when people use the patriotic card. That really bothers me,” said Nelsen.
He suggested that the $40,000 be put instead toward fire prevention.
The Visalia Parks and Recreation Foundation ran the show for 12 years before calling it quits because it lacked the resources. The show was previously run as a for-profit event by the Kiwanis and the Foundation was only supposed to be a stop gap measure while the city recruited another group. The Visalia City Council donated $10,000 every year to keep the show free but donations were requested at the gate.
Carol Hoppert-Hays, Director of the Parks and Recreation Foundation, said two years ago that it took anywhere from $30,000 to $55,000 to run the show. She said that the Foundation trimmed the cost to get it into the black by changing from a computer-generated to a hand-fired program. The Foundation was also able to extend the show from 15 minutes to 20 with the hand-fired fireworks.
When looking back at old newspaper clippings, Hoppert-Hays estimated that the show had been a Visalia tradition for the last 45 to 50 years, with a few missed years in the 1980s. Hoppert-Hays felt that it could be a money maker, if admission were charged.
“The event would be perfect for a large service group with a lot of members.”
The city staff also felt that the event could make money. Its report stated, “With a reduction in expenses, and more aggressive marketing and sales efforts, especially the solicitation of a name sponsor, it is thought that the event could possibly make money for a nonprofit, or prove to be at least a break-even event that would also continue a long running community event. A list of the donors is also available from the Parks and Recreation Foundation which could help facilitate sponsorship solicitation.”
Another reason the Parks and Recreation Department Foundation stopped hosting the fireworks show was the safety issue. Four or five years ago it was reported that the Visalia Fire Department did not feel that the Mineral King Bowl was an appropriate venue. The Foundation had to modify its program by clearing a wider area and not shooting the fireworks as high. Anyone who used to enjoy watching the fireworks from their front yard close to the stadium can no longer see them.
The fireworks show stayed at Mineral King Bowl because of tradition, but she said that the fire department has let it be known that the bowl can only be used for a few more years. That was in 2013. If a sponsor is found, the new location would be Groppetti Stadium.
The city council voted 4-1 to approve with Nelsen voting no. City staff will be sending out letters to potential sponsors by the end of the week.