The hard decision to end fireworks

JAFFREY — As a young boy growing up in Jaffrey, Steve Pelkey said he was fascinated by the Jaffrey Jubilee parade and fireworks — a tradition that more than 20 years ago morphed into the Festival of Fireworks. Pelkey never imagined that as an adult he would lead Atlas Fireworks and help continue the beloved tradition of providing an annual fireworks show for another generation.

The Festival of Fireworks has served as the largest fundraiser for the Jaffrey Chamber of Commerce for decades. It’s also been an opportunity for Atlas to show off award-winning displays in its hometown. But Monday, the long-standing tradition people have grown to treasure came to an end.

Anticipated increases in public safety costs, rising annual expenses and an unclear picture of who might volunteer and/or attend the 2013 event left organizers grappling with how to move forward this year, Festival Co-Chair Cyndy Burgess said Tuesday. An anonymous letter to town officials threatening mass violence cancelled the 23rd Festival of Fireworks in August 2012, and since then uncertainties about how to ensure festivalgoers’ safety has mounted, said Burgess.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Would you come?’” Burgess said, referring to her conversation with fellow event organizers. “We asked, ‘Are we going to buy kids [event] passes and encourage them to go off with their friends?’ We didn’t know the answer.”

Security costs alone were slated to increase by an additional $7,500 to $10,000 in 2013 to fund additional services, including a pre-event scan by canine/officer teams, the salaries of approximately four more officers tasked with securing the perimeter of the Jaffrey Airpark and continuous police presence leading up to the event, according to Police Chief Bill Oswalt. The average annual cost of police services in 2010 and 2011 was $28,000, Oswalt said Wednesday.

Under those circumstances, Festival Co-Chair Cathy Furze said cancelling the festival indefinitely was the right decision, but also one of the hardest she’s ever made.

While the bomb threat made in 2012 had a significant impact on everyone, Harvey Sawyer of Silver Ranch Airpark said Tuesday that the threat wasn’t the only factor that gave him pause. “[The festival] has been a fabulous ride and a terrific success. And yet maybe we grew to be victims of that success,” he said.

When something gets so big that you can’t wrap your arms around it and grasp what’s in front of you, Burgess said, it prompts a lot of questions and concerns about the future.

Furze agreed, saying, “We always prided this on being a family event. And when we looked at increased costs we said, ‘What do we do to make that up?’ Raising ticket prices seemed like the only answer.” But passing the financial burden onto local families was something organizers’ couldn’t bare, Furze said.

News that Jaffrey’s Festival of Fireworks would not go on came Monday just hours before the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon, a beloved event that had drawn nearly 25,000 people to the city. The festival of fireworks has brought an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 to Jaffrey in years past.

Sawyer said Tuesday that the tragedy in Boston brought to the forefront concerns about how to secure the small town of Jaffrey and protect festivalgoers from harm. “We had made our decision over a period of time, but the Boston tragedy punctuated it for sure,” he said.

The Board of Trustees for the Chamber of Commerce are slated to meet in the coming days to begin brainstorming new fundraisers that it can hold in order to fund its local community and educational programs, Burgess said. Atlas will take the next year to seek out other venues for a similar event, Pelkey said. “However, Jaffrey is our home and perhaps after a period of time, the event will return, providing another generation of special memories,” he said.

Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 228 or adandrea@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @alyssadandrea.

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