Fireworks sellers make plans to expand as many cities in Iowa enact restrictions

'Definitely, there's still some room to grow for year two,' says vendor

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By Erin Murphy, Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau

DES MOINES — Many of Iowa’s largest cities are already dousing the fuse on fireworks, but that is not stopping sellers from making big plans for next year.

Although some fireworks retailers are exercising caution as Iowa cities rethink allowing home fireworks displays under a new state law, others said that will not dissuade them from making robust plans for the next Fourth of July.

“We’re definitely going to continue our expansion plan into Iowa,” said Vince Bellino, who manages the Nebraska-based Bellino Fireworks.

Earlier this year, Iowa legalized the sale of consumer fireworks and allowed home displays, lifting a ban that had been on the books for nearly 80 years. The ban was implemented in 1939, shortly after fireworks-sparked blazes caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage to a pair of small northwest Iowa towns.

But the new law also permitted local governments to develop their own fireworks regulations. After this summer’s Fourth of July holiday, hundreds of residents in some of Iowa’s biggest cities complained about the noise.

The backlash was significant enough to lead multiple Iowa cities to consider reducing the time people can set off fireworks — or reinstituting the ban altogether — and shrinking the areas fireworks are allowed to be sold.

For example:

l Cedar Rapids and Davenport have reinstituted home fireworks bans. Davenport wasted no time, deciding July 5 to reestablish its ban. The Cedar Rapids City Council just last week voted to ban home displays, and also limit sales to industrial zones.

l The Cedar Falls City Council has gone back and forth on the issue and most recently sent it to a committee for further study. Waterloo’s council is debating the issue — its latest proposal is to allow home fireworks on July 4 only.

l Sioux City’s council has been debating the issue for months. While no formal proposal has been made, all council members have gone on record as supporting at the very least a smaller time frame for home fireworks displays.

l Mason City shortened its home fireworks display window to July 3 and July 4 only.

l Des Moines, the state’s largest city, limited fireworks displays to six hours on July 4.

Despite those restrictions in the state’s most populous areas — and potentially more to come — many fireworks retailers say they’re making even bigger plans for 2018 than they did in the rush to get ready for the last Fourth of July.

Bellino said his company sold from 45 locations across the state earlier this year, and he plans to expand next year. He said he hopes to have 100 locations.

“I think there was some excitement around year one, and I still think there’s plenty of room for growth in year two,” Bellino said. “Definitely, there’s still some room to grow for year two.”

The potential for a dwindling time frame for fireworks in Iowa’s biggest cities also won’t hamper the plans for Mitchell-based Flashing Thunder Fireworks, according to Katie Mostek, one of its owners.

“It really doesn’t change anything for us,” she said.

Mostek said that even though Iowa’s biggest cities are restricting fireworks displays, many smaller cities and rural areas are allowing them.

And Flashing Thunder sells to many out-of-state customers also, she said.

“There’s still a lot of people from a lot of towns that are still allowing the shooting of fireworks,” she said. “I’m confident we’re still going to have a lot of sales.”

Zach Terhark, with Urbandale-based Iowa Fireworks Co., said this year went well but the company is being cautious before deciding how to proceed next year. He said the company, which had 21 locations in Iowa this year, is watching with interest as the various cities hash out their plans for 2018.

“We’re still kind of in the planning stages of what next year is going to look like for us, and a lot of that does come down to what cities are going to try to continue changing the rules as far as allowing sales and allowing use,” Terhark said. “It’s definitely something we’re paying close attention to, and we’ll do our best to plan accordingly.”

The state does not know how much of an economic impact fireworks sales have had. A spokeswoman said the revenue department tracks sales tax collected from various types of businesses, but not fireworks specifically.

Dan Wood, an inspector with the State Fire Marshal’s Office, said the office initially attempted to track figures for fireworks sales, but it proved too difficult.

The state’s nonpartisan fiscal estimating agency earlier projected fireworks sales revenue in Iowa would be $17.8 million in fiscal 2017, or July 2016 through June, and $24.8 million in fiscal 2018, or July through June 2018. The agency estimated that would yield $1.1 million in state sales tax revenue for fiscal 2017 and $1.5 million for fiscal 2018.

The fire marshal’s office did report taking in $238,400 in licensing fees for fireworks retailers before the Forth.

Wood said the office was not budgeted extra funding to add staff to oversee the new law, and he does not expect the office to be able to hire more staff in time for next year, either.

Wood said he doesn’t know at this point whether a potential drop in license fees would hamper the office’s ability to oversee the law.

“We’re asked to license people, and we’re asked to do inspections. We can only really do what we’re asked to do,” Wood said. “I don’t know the financial impact until we do it.”

Even without additional staff, Wood said he expects the office will operate more smoothly next year. He said the time crunch — the bill was signed into law just three weeks before retailers were allowed to begin selling — complicated matters this year.

Now the fire marshal’s office has a bit less than four months to prepare for the next legal home fireworks display period — over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays — and nine months to get ready for the next Fourth of July holiday.

Retailers similarly expect smoother sailing next summer.

“It was kind of last minute, thrown together by the state,” Mostek said. “I think it should go better next year because we’ll be able to get our permits earlier, we’ll know what the state fire marshal is looking for. ... It’ll be better because we’ll be able to be more prepared.”

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