June 30, 2013

Having Wichita fireworks on the Fourth of July depends on the day of the week

Oklahoma City has a big one. So does Kansas City.

Oklahoma City has a big one. So does Kansas City.

Augusta, Derby, Goddard, Haysville and Park City have them too.

But Wichita no longer has an official Fourth of July fireworks show on the Fourth of July — unless the holiday happens to fall on a Thursday when Bradley Fair sponsors its summer concert series or a weekend night when the Wingnuts are in town.

This year, there will be fireworks on the Fourth. Because the holiday is on Thursday, the annual fireworks show that always ends the Thursday-night Bradley Fair summer concert series during the first week of July will be launched. The fireworks at the end of the Celebrate America show will be about 15 minutes long and start when smooth jazz saxophonist Joseph Vincelli finishes his show — around 9:30 or 9:45 p.m. — at the shopping center at 21st and Rock.

But that wasn’t so last year or the year before that and probably won’t be so next year, either.

Wichita’s long-standing Fourth of July fireworks show stopped happening after 2010, when managers of the Wingnuts lost a $5,000 sponsorship from the City of Wichita and decided that the event was too much for them to shoulder on its own.

From 1976 until 1993, Wichita’s main Fourth of July fireworks show was at Wichita State University’s Cessna Stadium and was sponsored by KAKE-TV, Channel 10. It included a concert, a patriotic program and a giant fireworks show and was expensive to put on, said Bryan Frye, KAKE’s marketing director. People had to pay gate admission to get in to the stadium.

But as the years went on, fewer people paid to get in and instead gathered to watch in areas outside the stadium.

In 1993, a gang shootout outside the stadium after the fireworks show resulted in two deaths. Organizers decided to stop putting on the show at Cessna Stadium, not only because they worried people would associate the show with the shootings, but also because of deteriorating conditions at the stadium and declining attendance. They moved the launch site downtown to the banks of the Arkansas River and Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, Frye said.

“The following year, it was decided that instead of reinventing this wheel and trying to make it work, let’s partner with a baseball game,” he said. “Lawrence-Dumont had a good crowd and had a ready-made event with a baseball game and concessions and bathrooms and parking. It made sense.”

The event, always known as “Celebrate” along with the year, went on until 2010. It grew to include a baseball game, a patriotic program put on by KAKE, and a big fireworks show.

In its final years, said Josh Robertson, the Wingnuts president and general manager, the show would cost more than $15,000 to put on. The fireworks cost $10,000, and required fencing designed to cordon off the shoot zone cost another $5,000. The Wingnuts — and the team they replaced, the Wranglers — were responsible for paying for police officers to patrol not only the crowd in the stadium but also the crowds that gathered outside on the river banks.

The city would always put $5,000 toward the event. But after the Celebrate ’09 event, Robertson learned that money would be eliminated because of budget cuts.

“We used to take it out of the Convention and Tourism budget, but there were so many demands out of that budget, we were unable to continue it,” said John D’Angelo, the city's manager of arts and cultural services.

The Wingnuts organized Celebrate ’10 on its own, but July 4, 2010, was a rainy day, and few people paid to go to the event, Robertson said. It lost money.

Starting in 2011, Robertson said, the Wingnuts decided that it would start offering its fireworks show after the weekend home game closest to the Fourth of July. KAKE would still be involved putting on the patriotic program, but the show would be only about five minutes longer than a standard weekend-night Wingnuts fireworks show. Celebrate ’13 was scheduled for June 29 at Lawrence-Dumont.

Having the show as part of its regular offerings eliminated the need for the fencing and all the extra security.

It also eliminated fireworks on the actual holiday.

Both Robertson and D’Angelo say its possible, though, that the Fourth of July fireworks could one day return.

Robertson said he just needs a sponsor to step up. He has the know-how to organize a show. He just needs the funds.

“Certainly if we had a sponsor come in and say, ‘Let’s do this,’ we’d try to get everything back together,” he said. “We’ve done it for so long, it wouldn’t be that tough.”

D’Angelo says that if people want a big fireworks show on the Fourth, they need to make that desire known.

“We’d be open to it,” he said. “Where it needs to start is with a group of people who really feel like it’s important to bring back.

“It’s simply been a choice of priorities over the past several years,” he said. “We haven’t had the ability to do everything.”

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