Happy Fourth! Good luck paying for that parade.

balloons convention
Those balloons can get expensive. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Like all things joyous and celebratory, parades took a hit during the great recession. Floats and road closures can get expensive, after all, and small municipalities around the country axed their Independence Day celebrations as a way to save cash.

Well, it looks like the worst is over, but the post-recession parade economy isn't quite the same as it used to be. For one thing, cities still aren't footing the bill. And while before, they might've kicked in police time and post-parade cleanup for free, the watchword now is "cost recovery."

"The bottom of it was about two years ago. This year is even better than last year," says Ira Rosen, director of business development for the International Festivals and Events Association. "But with the state of city, state and federal budgets, everybody is looking to privatize."

Usually, that's meant corporate sponsors -- like the convenience store chain Wawa, which signed a multi-year deal to underwrite Philadelphia's concert and fireworks show. But even private companies are asking more questions about the value of that visibility, if they can't really engage people with their products.

"It's hard to convince folks about the benefit of being part of a parade," says Hobie Pileski, a partner at Atlanta-based Argonne Parades. "There's much more talk of metrics." For example, he says, a car company wanted to set up an area for parade-goers to come see its latest models -- "not understanding, this is a parade. People go to a specific spot, watch the parade, and go back to their cars."

Atlanta lost its own Fourth of July parade a few years ago, when a local television station decided to drop its sponsorship. They haven't yet found another underwriter, and Pileski's company isn't doing any Independence Day parades this year. The Christmas holidays are a much more active time for him.

In many cases, local foundations and non-profits have stepped into the breach. And sometimes, small towns will even ask their citizens to chip in a few dollars each to fund a modest celebration -- demand for holiday entertainment is still high, and people can be persuaded to support it.

"When the economy went down, we saw an increase in attendance at parades, and participation," says Ray Pulver, owner of Upbeat Parades Productions in San Jose. "It just goes back to really getting the community involved again."

Meanwhile, though, costs are going up. Rosen says insurance rates have risen some 10 percent in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, and cities are going through more extensive preparation and training for staff and volunteers. High-level coordination with federal intelligence agencies, once reserved for big cities, is "starting to bubble down to smaller communities."

And then there's the inflated price of balloons.

"The huge issue that parades are dealing with now is the cost of helium," says Pileski. Supply has been restricted since the Federal Helium Reserve started running out of the gas over the past few years. Congress may have come in for some ribbing for addressing the problem this spring, but for the purposes of your Independence Day shindig, it was truly a patriotic act.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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