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Rockets' red glare, songs bursting in air may be a little softer this summer
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Staff

The Taste of Des Plaines and other festivals throughout the suburbs are cutting back on its entertainment acts at summer festivals to save money.

 

Patrick Kunzer | 2007

Independence Day fireworks displays will be cut back in several towns.

 

Joe Lewnard | 2006

Des Plaines Fourth of July parade had its budget cut this year.

 

Daily Herald file photo

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Published: 3/5/2009 3:26 PM | Updated: 3/5/2009 4:10 PM

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The federal government can try to stimulate the economy with deficit spending, but local governments don't have the same options when it comes to something residents find stimulating and essential: summer festivals and fireworks displays.

Communities and fundraising agencies across the suburbs are finding they have to cut back on spending for summer revelry this year, due to reduced tax revenue and diminished coffers in the economic downturn.

Most are doing their best to hold the line and make cutbacks minimal, even in the harsh economic environment. Hoffman Estates, for instance, once again allocated $15,000 for this summer's Fourth of July fireworks display, which will mean it will be trimmed from 25 to 23 minutes. That's actually due to higher prices for fireworks after an explosion at a factory in China cut supply. Most residents don't figure to notice the 2-minute difference.

Some large festivals - including those in Arlington Heights, Libertyville and Naperville - stand to go on almost as usual, in some cases because they're minimally tax-supported.

Yet, there's no doubt suburbs are feeling the pinch - and as much as they're trying not to let it show, sometimes there's only so much that can be done. Wheeling will hold its Fourth of July fireworks, but cut back many of its surrounding events. And Gurnee is considering cutting its Independence Day fireworks entirely (it's taking bids, but there's no money allocated for it in the proposed budget) and instead funding fireworks for its Gurnee Days festival in August.

Lisle's Eyes to the Skies festival will be cut back drastically, from four days to 21/2 over the Fourth of July weekend. "Our biggest problem was that we were several-hundred-thousand dollars in debt at the end of the one last year," said Wayne Dunham, who acted as chairman of the festival for years. "Every year we thought we had the solution, and it didn't work."

Although wildly popular, attracting 50,000 people last year with its array of balloon rides, music acts and appearances by Disney Channel TV stars, many of those attending were children paying lower entrance fees, alcohol sales were down and Disney charged thousands of dollars apiece for its stars. As a result, the nonprofit corporation that had put on the festival since the early '90s filed for bankruptcy and dissolution. It's been replaced by a new agency this year, working on a $90,000 startup loan issued by the village.

"They've been looking for sponsors, and of course that's a hard thing to do this year," Dunham said. "It's a very tight budget they've put together. We were close to a million dollars last year, and they're talking about maybe $350,000 this year."

The village, however, which has sponsored the fireworks display the last several years, will maintain it at current levels.

"We were very proud of it," Dunham said. "Everyone believes it was a great thing. The problem is finding people with the time to do it." He estimates he devoted 30 percent of his time to it in past years, but has no role in it this year.

"It's like being a corporate executive," Dunham said. "If you lose enough money, you don't stick around."

Some towns are planning for the party to go on almost as in past years, a boon for recession-weary residents who no doubt will crave some feel-good time by summer.

Denise Hoppe, secretary on the board of directors for Arlington Heights' Frontier Days, said it benefits from being a volunteer-based nonprofit agency independent of the village and therefore not so prone to falling tax revenues. "Honestly, we're doing well," she said. "We're right about where we should be. We're on target."

That was echoed by Anne Carlino, director of Libertyville's Civic Center Foundation, who said funding for its annual Libertyville Days festival in June would "remain the same," although "of course we're trying to do more with less."

Yet, even though she knows many people are hurting, they seem determined to make the fest work without government funding.

"I've been getting a lot of really good support from the community," Carlino said. "The local businesses are really seeing this as a good way to support the community."

Government funding actually works out well for Naperville's Ribfest. "We have a 1 percent food and beverage tax throughout the city of Naperville," said Katie Wernberg, community grants coordinator, "which goes directly into a special events and cultural amenities fund. This year will be about $2.9 million.

"It's been going up incrementally," she added. "I think it's our only fund that's up."

That means Naperville should be able to keep its contribution to the Exchange Club's Ribfest and the city's fireworks display consistent with past years.

Most suburbs are at least trying to keep from cutting their popular fireworks displays.

Itasca prides itself on its fireworks. "We've heard and we kind of consider it the best outside the city of Chicago, the best in the suburbs," said Jeff Pruyn, chairman of Itasca's finance committee.

It's a part of what got the village cited as one of the best places to live recently by Business Week magazine. "It's a quality-of-life issue," Pruyn added. "I know the people really look forward to the fireworks."

The village's daylong Fourth of July celebration, climaxing with the fireworks, is largely funded by the private Hamilton Partners real-estate-development firm based in Itasca, but the village contributes $60,000.

"I would assume we would still continue (that, but) I don't know that we would look for increasing it," Pruyn said. "It comes out of our hotel-tax fund, and we have limited spots we can spend that money on, anyway. And that fund's not really hurting in the downturn."

Hamilton Partners hasn't yet presented its budget for this year's Fourth of July festivities. "If they were to cut it back," Pruyn said, "I would hope they'd cut back on the entertainment and other events and not the fireworks."

That's what Des Plaines is doing. It will spend the usual $16,000 on fireworks, but as announced last month it's cutting its overall budget for the Fourth of July parade and Taste of Des Plaines events from $65,000 to $54,000.

"We're not paying for any entertainment," Linda Forman, Des Plaines' Special Events Commission chairwoman, said at the time. "We are going to have whatever we can get for free."

Batavia too prides itself on its Fourth of July fireworks, having spent about $30,000 on it last year. "We have one of the best fireworks displays in the area," said Mayor Jeffery Schielke.

Yet it has its own difficulties right now, in that in a tradition going back to the '50s it has always been funded by public donations.

In those days, the fire department would fire off the fireworks, and according to Schielke, "The deal was they'd only fire as many as people would pay donations for."

Although the village long ago took to contracting out the fireworks - now to Melrose Pyrotechnics, which also does Chicago's displays - "to this point in time, it's all been done with raised money, no tax dollars," Schielke added. "We've always kind of retained it as a badge of honor that we can go out and get people to donate to put this party on, and we're not dinging the taxpayers for the cost."

Yet this year some corporate sponsors have dropped off, and as everywhere donations aren't coming in as fluidly as they have in the past. There are reserves built up - especially as volunteers "pass the hat" for next year's display at the end of every Fourth of July - but "what we don't want to do is get ourselves in a situation where a year or two from now we don't have any money at all," Schielke said. "The trouble is, the last few years, there's been a movement with everybody wanting the government to pay for everything."

He reasserted that they're only just really getting started with this year's fundraising, and there are no plans to reconsider public funding for it.

"It is a great source of pride for a community like Batavia that they can do something that people walk away and say, 'Wow, I can't believe that happened in Batavia,'" added Roger Breisch, executive director of the chamber of commerce, who has overseen the fireworks display and fundraising for years, even as he admitted that donations are going to be harder to come by now.

"We are going to carry on at the same level," he insisted, "and we will be asking the community to help us out."

Things will get going in earnest with the annual citywide garage sale in May, which typically brings in more than $5,000, but he also plans to unveil new ideas for a fundraising campaign at the April 6 city council meeting. "One of the good things about a crisis is it makes you creative," he said. "We've had to rethink a lot of things." But not, it seems, the overall commitment to a world-class fireworks show.

Taste of cutbacks

Here's where some suburbs stand on fireworks and summer festivals:

Arlington Heights: Frontier Days funding on track, Arlington Park plans usual fireworks display for Fourth of July.

Batavia, Hoffman Estates, Itasca: Plan to retain Fourth of July fireworks at current levels.

Des Plaines: Retaining Fourth of July fireworks, cutting paid entertainment for Taste of Des Plaines.

Gurnee: Considering dropping Fourth of July fireworks, instead concentrating on Gurnee Days in August.

Lisle: Retaining Fourth of July fireworks, cutting duration of Eyes to the Skies festival.

Naperville: Ribfest, fireworks well-funded, thanks in part to a local food and beverage tax.

Wheeling: Retaining Fourth of July fireworks, cutting Freedom Fest.