Near fizzle: Who owns the 4th of July fireworks?

For Ray Caddell, it was déjà vu. In 2000, eight days before the 4th of July, he found out that no fireworks were planned in the hometown of the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence.

This year, it happened again.

When he heard that no one had stepped up to do fireworks this year, Caddell was in shock. "I'm disappointed, and I'm embarrassed a little," he says.

For many years, the Jaycees sponsored the 4th of July celebration at McIntire Park. But Jaycees are virtually extinct in Charlottesville these days– by 2000, the organization had gone "off life support," according to former Jaycee Joe Teague.

Caddell scrambled to get a show on in 2000 with help from Teague and a $7,500 check from Bill Tucker at the law firm Tucker Griffin Barnes. "We did it on a shoestring," recalls Caddell, who estimates they staged the event for around $10,000.

In 2001 and 2002, the Charlottesville Downtown Foundation stepped in to sponsor the fireworks. Last year, the display cost around $20,000, according to Foundation director Gail Weakley.

"It's very expensive," says Weakley, "and there are a lot of hidden costs besides the fireworks," such as a shuttle to carry disabled attendees and extra police.

The Foundation requested help from the City of Charlottesville but was told no assistance was available, says Weakley. So last fall, the Foundation decided that the event, which generates no revenue, was too costly.

Weakley says the decision had nothing to do with this year's budget shortfall that has resulted in admission charges for Fridays After Five for the first time.

"We sent a letter to city government last fall," she says, but apparently nothing happened until word got out last week that once again, no one was planning to put on a 4th of July fireworks display.

Once again, Bill Tucker has stepped in at the last minute to make sure Jefferson's hometown celebrates Independence Day. He, Caddell, Dann Miller at WINA, and Tom Powell at Powell's Mobile Auto Repair Service, have formed a committee called Save the Fireworks. As of May 16, the group had raised $12,000, with a target of $20,000.

Perhaps more importantly at this late date, Tucker's got a shooter– the pyrotechnics expert who actually fires off the display– lined up. He says the main problem will be getting the fireworks.

"After what happened in Iraq this year, we've got to have fireworks," he declares.

By press time, Tucker and Caddell were less concerned about money than manpower. And they're determined that one of the goals of the committee is to make sure history doesn't repeat itself.

After the 4th of July, "I'm going to make a plea to have the city and county step in to take over so this doesn't happen again," Tucker vows. "It's amazing this is happening a second time."

"The real question," asks Caddell, "is why an area like greater Charlottesville/Albemarle, with all the economic blessings we have here, can possibly not have fireworks when every little town in the country does it?"

Caddell does some quick math and figures that a $20,000 event in an area of 140,000 comes to about 14 cents a person not that he's advocating charging admission. "In the context of Charlottesville's and Albemarle's budgets, that's not a lot of money."

For city manager Gary O'Connell, the expense is the bottom line. But wouldn't it be a little unpatriotic to not have a display? "If people feel that way, I hope someone will step up to do it," he encourages.

The Hook surveyed some surrounding municipalities to find out how they handle 4th of July fireworks. In Staunton, the city contributes $15,000 to the private nonprofit organization that puts on a three-day celebration. Overall, the event costs between $25,000 to $40,000, according to Tom Tigert, head of the America's Birthday Committee. "You need to spend at least $7,000 to have a good display," advises Tigert.

The Statler Brothers used to sponsor Staunton's fireworks on the 4th, and to avoid competition with that, Waynesboro waited a week to blast its fireworks. The city puts up $7,500 for fireworks, and the licensed shooters donate their time, which otherwise would cost another $7,500, says David Van Covern, Waynesboro director of parks and recreation. "We don't do it on the 4th, and that's why we get a bigger bang for the buck," he notes.

Tiny Scottsville contributes $500 to its fireworks display, which is sponsored by the volunteer fire department for a total of $2,500. "It's a heck of a display that goes on for about 40 minutes," says town administrator Wyatt Shields.

Former Jaycee Teague favors a public/private partnership for future Independence Days in Charlottesville. "We need a standing committee, and I'd like to see the participation of UVA and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, too," he says.

Lindsay Dorrier, Albemarle County Board of Supervisors chairman, also can see a precedent for government funding. "I think local government should contribute, and the private sector should organize it," he says.

And should Charlottesville organizers not get it together for a 4th of July extravaganza, "We invite everyone to come to Scottsville," he offers.

To Ray Caddell, there's just something plain wrong about the possibility of not having fireworks on the 4th of July in a city like Charlottesville. "It's got to be the largest group of people who get together," he says. "It's the one event that crosses every segment of society the rich, the poor, the elderly. It's small-town America."

And in the spirit of those revolutionary colonists responsible for Independence Day in the first place, Caddell says: "As Americans, we need to demand it and we need to pay for it."

The third president died on July 4, which gives Tucker yet another motive for the festivities. "We don't want Thomas Jefferson rolling over in his grave," he says.

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