Bonding over starbursts, shells, sparklers

by

Published: July 4,2005

Four times during the summer, Casino Row and Budweiser host Sunday Fireworks on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where registered hotel guests eat, drink and make merry while waiting for the show to begin.

Pyrotecnico, a New Orleans-based special effects production company, produces the fireworks shows choreographed with music heard on WGCM Coast 102.3 FM from a barge in the Gulf of Mexico. Casino Row, a marketing partnership between Isle of Capri Biloxi, Casino Magic Biloxi and Grand Casino Biloxi, will pay roughly $80,000 for the special events. Two more Casino Row fireworks shows are planned this summer — on July 24 and September 4, during Labor Day weekend.

“Our fireworks display is one of the best you’ll see,” said Rich Westfall, senior marketing director for Isle of Capri Biloxi. “It pays off because it’s the perfect ending to a weekend, it extends guest stay through Sunday night, and provides a wonderful display for local residents, too.”

Jan Nieminen, special events coordinator for the Clinton Chamber of Commerce, said the city and chamber co-sponsor an annual Fourth of July fireworks display as “a way to give back to the community.”

“It’s a time to fellowship with old friends and make new ones,” she said. “I see people at the fireworks extravaganza that I don’t see any other time of the year.”

Local sponsors help offset the approximate $10,000 cost to produce the show.

“It’s part of marketing our community,” said Nieminen. “It’s one more way that Clinton presents itself as a warm and inviting hometown you want to live in.”

Pumping up sales

Farra Shaw, president of Monroe, La.-based Stratos Fireworks Inc., said elaborately choreographed fireworks displays produced by casinos, communities and other venues has helped, not hurt, the sales of Explosives 1.4, commonly called Class C Common Fireworks, which are sold from roadside tents and retail outlets throughout Mississippi.

“People go to the fireworks show and then they go to the fireworks store,” she said. “It pumps up sales.”

Even though she pays rent year-round, Shaw’s Vicksburg retail store is open less than two months a year, from June 15 to July 5, and from December 5 to January 2. She declined to disclose the sales volume of the store, only saying that “it’s profitable or we wouldn’t be there.”

Carol Short of Senatobia-based Crazy Rob’s Fireworks, said sales remain robust at retail locations in Oxford, Water Valley, Batesville, Sardis and Nesbit.

“People are buying just as much or more,” she said. “It’s a different crop of fireworks for casinos.”

During a normal season without too much bad weather, sales average around $16,000 per tent, said Karen Hale, manager of Hale’s Fireworks, one of the largest fireworks dealers in Central and South Mississippi. The Gretna, La.-based company owns 30 to 40 tents and six buildings in the state.

“In Mississippi and Louisiana, Christmas and New Year’s is a bigger season than the Fourth of July,” said Hale. “Everywhere else in America, more fireworks are sold around Independence Day.”

Even though the selling season is short, getting ready for the holidays takes meticulous preparation, said Hale.

“It’s very much a year-round business,” she said. “It takes all spring to get ready for summer and all fall to get ready for winter.”

Who’s regulating the fireworks?

In 2004, a bill was filed in the Mississippi Legislature to license the state’s consumer fireworks companies. If passed, it would have been the first time the law had been amended since 1960, but the push for Gov. Haley Barbour’s “no new taxes” plan dampened enthusiasm for the legislation, which many perceived as a revenue-generating regulation.

“We probably receive 75 to 80 requests every year from people wanting to know how to get licensed to sell fireworks in Mississippi and they’re always surprised to learn it’s not required,” said Millard Mackey, state chief fire marshal. “Sister states all around us regulate fireworks, but we’re one of few that allows fireworks to be sold without requiring wholesalers or distributors to be licensed by the state. Now you can’t sell fireworks to anyone under the age of 12, and you do need a permit for public fireworks displays.”

At press time, Mackey had issued a fireworks permit for a display at Whitfield, which consisted of Explosives 1.3, formerly Class B Special Fireworks.

“One of my deputies, a bomb technician, will look at everything before they shoot that show,” he said. “We’re also permitting and inspecting fireworks displays at a couple of state parks, the Mississippi Coliseum and in the fall, football games at state universities. The key is that it’s state property.”

Even though many municipalities have fire codes that prohibit the sale and shooting of fireworks except for public displays, some have amended the code, said Mackey.

“However, on the complaint of a citizen, we would work with the local authority to address a problem,” he said.

Where required by local law, fireworks vendors are required to have a city and/or county license for every outlet. As long as good records are maintained, they rarely see inspectors.

“The lack of regulation is a lot less headache, but because of that, you tend to have a lot more fly-by-night operations that sometimes set up tacky operations and sell wet fireworks, which unfortunately gives the business as a whole a bad aura,” said Shaw. “I’m an established, incorporated, insured business with a real physical address where people can hunt me down if they need me. Without regulation, I’m sharing my volume in Mississippi with people that aren’t as reputable.”

Female-dominated industry

Survey fireworks companies, and chances are good that a woman is the point person.

“It’s a good way to make money fairly fast in the summer, especially for moms and teachers who want to supplement their income,” said Hale. “That’s what I do. My kids are out of school and staying with their grandparents until the July Fourth season closes.”

Short markets fireworks and keeps the books while her husband works full-time in another industry.

“This is a sideline business only,” she said. “It works well for us.”

A proportionately high number of women fill the upper level ranks, especially in wholesale companies, noted Shaw.

“In retail, I only know of a few female owners of operations,” she pointed out. “My family has been in the fireworks business since I was very small. I picked it up and ratcheted it up a notch.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

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