In Shippensburg, Pa., Going Door to Door to Afford July 4 Fireworks

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

SHIPPENSBURG, Pa. -- She has never felt confident with big numbers, so Kip Fordney brings along a college math major to count the money sure to pile up. Fordney, the head of Shippensburg's parks and recreation department, walks through downtown carrying a one-pound deli container turned into a collection cup and stops at each storefront to deliver a rehearsed pitch. "We're trying to save the Fourth of July fireworks," she says, over and over. "Can you help?"

After each stop, Fordney, 49, hands the donations to her assistant, who thumbs through the checks and bills before offering a running total.

"That's $350 so far," says the helper, Eden Eliff.

"That's all?" Fordney says. "Really? Are you sure?"

No matter how many times they recount, the numbers don't add up. Fireworks, held in Memorial Park every summer since the 1940s, would cost $5,300; a dwindling budget and lackluster donations have left Fordney responsible for raising every cent. If she fails to secure the money in the next few days, the town of 5,600 people in south-central Pennsylvania will forgo fireworks and cancel the disc jockey on its self-proclaimed "Best Day of Summer." The residents who gather annually at the high school football field to lie on blankets, listen to "The Star-Spangled Banner," and drink free Wild Cherry Pepsi and Mountain Dew will instead be left to contemplate a dark sky, in yet the latest reminder of the economic crisis.

More than 40 communities across the country have already canceled their Fourth of July fireworks, conceding to a new reality: Shooting off a colorful array of explosives, an American birthright since 1777, is now a luxury that borders on wasteful. Unlike in Washington, where tens of thousands will fight for position on the Mall, these are places that represent what Independence Day means in most of America -- a hillside covered with friends and neighbors, a few dozen fireworks set off by the volunteers from the fire department, a sweet, small-town sense of community on a warm summer night.

And yet the mayor in Lowell, Mass., laid off 48 employees and canceled fireworks earlier this month, reasoning that it saved employee No. 49. Some towns near Washington, from Herndon to Laurel, said sluggish fundraising could force them to scale back. Chesapeake Beach, Md., will shoot off fireworks on July 3 because it procured a discounted rate; organizers in Charlottesville warned that next year, fireworks might be canceled entirely.

Fordney refuses to forfeit Shippensburg's tradition without a fight, especially since there are no other fireworks within 20 miles. She considers herself the vanguard of summer, and "summer is just sad without fireworks," she says. So, on a humid Tuesday in June, Fordney sips a morning soda and readies for a long day of fundraising. Her office is crammed into the swimming pool's snack bar, next to the hot dog roller. For the first time in two years, she has swapped her usual sweatshirt and flip-flops for a black dress and gold necklace. Otherwise, she reasons, people might spot her going door to door with a collection can and mistake her for a vagrant.

She motions for her assistant to follow, and they load into a battered white truck. Fordney starts the engine, throws the pickup into reverse and then brakes suddenly. "You know," she says, "I haven't even figured out where we should go."

Where do you raise money, she wonders, in a town where nobody has any to spare?

They start at Kathy's Deli, a quaint restaurant that draws a good crowd for lunch. The place has a reputation for generous giving, so Fordney hopes for $100. Kathy Pugh, the owner, comes to the front counter, spots Fordney's donation can and shakes her head.

"I can tell you right off, it's going to be hard for us to give you much," Pugh says. She disappears into the back of the restaurant to talk to her husband. The couple risked their savings in 2008 to expand the restaurant, taking over the hair salon next door and splurging on wooden tables and wireless Internet access. Then the economy bottomed out, their catering business shrank and the new space remained mostly empty. Now Pugh sometimes tells friends that, "thank God," at least this crisis only came after the last of their children finished college, "because it's only us who could lose big."

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