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It Takes Big Bucks to Make Big Bangs

We spend millions ­celebrating our Independence

In a time when money is tight, we celebrate the nation’s founding with an-over-the-top party.
    The American tradition of lighting fuses to make colorful explosions in the sky started on the day the founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence: July 4, 1776.
    The day before, July 3, founding father John Adams wrote to his wife, “the day will be most memorable in the history of America … It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, bonfires and illuminations.”
    Now, 237 years later, the fireworks Adams called for have become a multi-million dollar industry.
    Last year, Americans spent $318 million on display fireworks — the big ones that you travel to see — and $649 million on backyard fireworks. Plus the $2.4 billion dropped at grocery stores for Independence Day cookouts, according to US News & World Report.
    That’s a lot of dough.
    Why spend it when most of us are taking personally the troubled U.S. economy?
    Because we’re American, by golly.
    “Out of all the people I have talked to when I’m out and about in Chesapeake Beach, no one has ever asked me to cut the budget on fireworks,” says Chesapeake Beach Mayor Bruce Wahl. Wahl spends $40,000 of the town budget every year for Independence Day fireworks.
    “It’s the best on the Bay,” brags Wahl of Chesapeake Beach’s detonation of more than 2,000 shells from two barges at the mouth of Fishing Creek.
    Galesville had a good show too, a little too good. The Galesville Heritage Society blasted a fireworks show for four years before calling it quits in 2007 because the show was so popular. Thousands of visitors jammed the town, says Bill Whitman, president of the Heritage Society.
    Now the town celebrates with an annual Main Street parade of floats from local businesses, marching bands, kids on bicycles, horse riders and vintage fire trucks. The 1pm parade brings in about 400 people, a more manageable number.
    Galesville got out of the fireworks game before the recession hit.
    Fireworks displays across Chesapeake Country were resilient to the recession, but they’ve had to adapt. Solomons and Annapolis have been sharing the cost with the community for decades, so when the recession hit the fireworks budget didn’t crash.
    Since the early 1980s, Annapolis has contributed $20,000 to the display, matched with $20,000 in local contributions.
    “Each year it seems harder and harder to get the money we need. We have to ask and ask again,” says Steve Shade, the president of Annapolis’ fireworks committee. But every year the committee gets what it needs.
    The 20-plus-volunteer Annapolis Fireworks Committee works half of every year to make the show a success.
    Our capital city’s 25-minute show is filled with the newest, and coolest fireworks that Pyrotecnico, a national fireworks company, has to offer. This year the show includes jellyfish and butterfly fireworks, adding novelty and variety in shape, color and size.
    With coordinating with Pyrotecnico, Homeland Security, the city and the Naval Academy Band, which plays a concert before the show, “it takes a small village the day of the fireworks to get the show off the ground,” Shade says.
    Down south, the Solomons Business Association took over the fireworks more than 20 years ago from Calvert County, which now contributes $9,600 to the show.
    The Association works year-round to raise money from annual events like the Christmas Walk, corporate sponsors and community donations.
    “No one wants the fireworks to stop,” says Lisa Batchelor Frailey, president of the Solomon’s Business Association. “It’s a source of national pride for Solomons.”
    Herrington Harbor South, a marina-resort in Rose Haven, throws a beach party to celebrate America’s birthday, paying for it out of pocket. Thousands of partiers gather on the marina’s beach for a night of drinks, music and patriotism.
    “It’s a good summertime party,” says marina manager Jed Dickman. “When Lee Greenwoods’ I’m Proud to be an American is blasting and the fireworks hit their grand finale, people start hootin’ and hollerin’ and everyone has goosebumps. You can really feel the pride.”
    Tradition. That’s why, Chesapeake Country dwellers say they won’t miss Independence Day fireworks. It’s a tradition that, everybody supports.
    “We get $25 checks from families,” says Annapolis’s Shade. “You can’t take a family of four out to the movies for that price. No one wants to see the tradition end just because we couldn’t meet a number.”

Michelle Steel contributed reporting to this story