Note: this is a follow-up to today’s earlier article, “July 4 Fireworks in Flagler Beach May Not Happen as Long-Time Pyro Supplier Santore Is Booked Elsewhere.”
Flagler Beach could have had its July 4 fireworks had the city not waited until April 24 to first contact its usual fireworks producer for the July 4 show. But by then, Fireworks by Santore was already booked up on that day, and could only do a show on July 2 that weekend. But a series of unfortunate events and outdated assumptions rather than malice or incompetence were like a dud on the fuse, starting with Covid’s upending effects.
“It takes a lot to do a fireworks show, a lot of preparations, and you’re calling on April 24 for a July 4 show? Come on,” said Eric Larsen, the Fireworks by Santore partner who handles local shows. Santore was never under contract with the city, whose burden it was to contact the company for July 4.
Larsen said the city had itself dropped Fireworks by Santore in 2020 because of Covid, when most cities did, and again in 2021, when most cities did not–including St. Augustine, Ormond Beach and Palm Coast, all of which had fireworks shows. “You don’t hear from somebody for two years, what are we suppose to do? So yes, if they contacted us at the beginning, early February, March, we would have been able to be in a better situation. April, 24, ‘Hey, we want to be able to do fireworks? Come on.”
At a meeting late Thursday night, the Flagler Beach City Commission voted to hold July 4 celebrations on that day, with or without fireworks, in hopes of securing a different fireworks provider. But several things were said by officials at the meeting that were either inaccurate or incomplete, and a key point of information was left out: the commission was not aware that it was not until April 24 that the city contacted Santore to book the show.
“Someone dropped the ball, and the commission was painted a completely different picture,” Mayor Suzie Johnston said.
The commission in January had voted to accept the recommendations of its own appointed July 4 committee, which called for resuming Independence Day fireworks after a two-year hiatus. Johnston, who served on the committee as an ex-officio member, considered it a given that the city would do what it had done in the past–contact the company to set up the fireworks. (It’s not commissioners’ job to get involved in those administrative steps.)
Flagler Beach City Manager William Whitson told the commission Thursday that “we are once again victims of Covid. There are not enough certified licensed people to do these things. And the price tag on doing them keeps going up and up.” He said Santore could only guarantee a show for $25,000 on July 2, not July 4. “Then they suggested that we go to another smaller provider that wasn’t quite as busy and booked up, that may be able to do this on the fourth. I’ve been in conversations with the new provider, Imperial Fireworks.”
Fireworks by Santore “never recommended” Imperial Fireworks, a very small, new operator, Larsen said, referring to Jack Lambert, who established his company in 2018. “Zambelli or Pyrotecnico, that’s the only people we would recommend.”
Lambert, in an interview today, said his is a smaller operation, but also versatile and a producer of 20-minute shows–the kind of shows his company has been producing at Port Canaveral and the City of Cocoa since 2019, for example, and that he’d want to produce for Flagler Beach. He said he’d want to put on “something my company will be proud of and something your community will be proud of.” That means a 20-minute show, assuming he can fit it into his bookings.
Santore is facing staffing and materials challenges, considering that upwards of 90 percent of fireworks originate in China, where supply has been bottlenecked. Santore operates with part-timers, since fireworks companies can go months without any shows anywhere, then suddenly be swamped by bookings, especially in the summer months. But the sort of part-timers the industry could rely on in the past–teachers, retired firefighters and the like–found other ways to make summer cash during the pandemic, and have not returned. “March 15 was usually our deadline for getting everybody in, but again, we have changed our busines model,” Larsen said. Rather than send out booking notices to regular customers around then, the company has since relied on customers reaching out. “We take it by call, we fill up by spots, and that’s how we do it, there’s enough work out there that we don’t have to solicit.”
Flagler Beach Fire Chief Bobby Pace–who did not address the commission on the matter last night–would contact Gary De Lia at Santore to set up the July 4 show. But De Lia retired last year. “My guys tell me hey, we always talked with Gary, and we didn’t know he wasn’t there no more,” Whitson said this morning. (Whitson himself didn’t have contact with Santore, since Pace was the point person on the task.) “I heard about it a few weeks ago and we’ve been scrambling ever since to come up with the right plan,” Whitson said. “I just know the staff was clarifying with me before the commission meeting last night that if we wanted it, they offered July 2nd.”
Asked about the usual process of booking the fireworks show, Whitson said: “I’m new, just coming into this, I just know the staff has been working on this for some time and the fact that we didn’t know that the normal contact retired was a big complication that happened.” Whitson has yet to manage a year with fireworks in Flagler Beach since he took over a little over a year ago.
“I talked to one person at Flagler Beach and it’s Bobby Pace,” Larsen said, stressing that the company would “absolutely” have provided the July 4 show on July 4, for $25,000 (money provided by the Flagler County Tourist Development Council). “Do they ever plan? No, they don’t plan, so why is their lack of planning now become a slander against our company?” Larsen said. “Chief Pace is the only person that I’ve spoken to in this whole time, and I was straight up honest with him, we’re not going to do something we can’t produce.”
Larsen strongly disputed other statements made at the commission meeting, such as the impression that Fireworks by Santore would not book less lucrative shows.
Mayor Suzy Johnston put it this way: “I spoke with Santore Fireworks and this is a staffing issue. This is a budget issue. They are turning down jobs of $50,000. So basically until we have an investment up into $100,000, we would not have fireworks on the Fourth of July. It’s the same amount of labor and so their profit is cut doing smaller jobs.”
In fact, Johnston spoke with a Santore family member who is not in any way associated with the fireworks company , and hasn’t been for a while, though he knows the business and spoke to Johnston to give her context about the industry’s economics. It was that Santore who suggested Imperial Fireworks, not Larsen or anyone connected to Larsen. As for the dollar figures presented by the mayor, Larsen said “Disney’s show doesn’t cost $100,000. There isn’t a show in the state of Florida that has a $100,000 budget,” nor has the Boston Pops’s famous fireworks show, or the shows at the Speedway in Daytona, which are produced by Fireworks by Santore.
“We didn’t even talk money when I said we’d do July 2, we would have just made it work,” Larsen said. “We are a safe professional company, we put on some of the best shows, and yes, we are based in Flagler County.”