Arts and Entertainment

The red, white and green of Independence Day

Fireworks light up the economy and help some civic groups earn much-needed cash. - Bill Mickelson/Staff photo
Fireworks light up the economy and help some civic groups earn much-needed cash.
— image credit: Bill Mickelson/Staff photo

With the Fourth fast approaching, fireworks stands are again abuzz with patrons who've got money to burn.

Family-owned fireworks stands line the reservation corridor of Highway 305 in North Kitsap, with boomers and bottle rockets, zingers, zangers and zippers priced anywhere from $5-$500, yet nearly each stand is mum on what kind of cash that brings in.

"That's undisclosed," two workers at George Family Fireworks reply in unison when asked how much their stand makes annually.

"Bryan Gunnar Cole tried to ask me that same thing," another longtime Suquamish fireworks salesman Bennie Armstrong of Bennie's Jets replied. "And he got about the same response: 'I'm not gonna tell you.'

"It's such a competitive business," Armstrong went on. "Everybody wants to know what everybody else's numbers are, and at the same time we just like to keep them kind of private."

In 2000, Bainbridge-born filmmaker and lifelong Suquamish fireworks connoisseur Bryan Gunnar Cole produced the documentary "Boomtown" for PBS' Point of View series featuring Armstrong's stand and the greater Suquamish corridor, in which he didn't so much get to actual economic figures on the bottom line, but he did get to the great irony of tribes earning income from goods that celebrate America's independence.

The Suquamish are one of 26 federally recognized tribes in Washington State, all of which sell fireworks in a market that is unique to reservations as a result of treaties with the federal government.

"How do you support a country that oppressed your people for 500 years?" Armstrong said. "That is the irony of it all. Now we're selling fireworks and making a little bit of money off the birth of a country that has oppressed our people for 500 years."

Though politics are best avoided, they are an imposing, constantly recurring theme — every summer since 1973 for Armstrong, which is when he took his first job as night watchman at a family friends' stand and eventually ended up running the place.

He's spent 22 years as a high voltage lineman with Seattle Light, but he's sold fireworks for even longer. The reality for him is some sort of dual citizenship.

"Walking in both worlds," as "Boomtown" puts it.

But Boomtown and the tribes aren't the only ones keen on the potentially positive economic impacts of the Fourth of July. Some 30 miles down the road, along the Highway 303 corridor in East Bremerton, the Bremerton High School football boosters are amid their biggest fundraiser of the year — a fireworks stand, through the multi-national TNT corporation.

The same group has been running the stand for years now, BHS Boosters parent Bill Smith said, following their kids from the Pee Wees all the way up through high school, raising money for equipment, summer camps, travel and team dinners.

While also fairly mum on what the stand brings in each year, Smith noted that the revenue generated helped pay part of the $17,000 tab for brand new uniforms last year.

Due in large part to boosters programs and fundraisers like the fireworks stand, Smith said, Bremerton High is also one of the last remaining schools in the area that doesn't charge "pay-to-play" or activity fees. So with that in mind, each summer, parents organize the fundraiser and they and the kids man the stand all day and all night through July 4.

Similarly, high-school aged kids also are manning the stands along the Suquamish corridor. Which, amidst one of the worst summers to be a teen looking for work, brings up another economic impact beyond the revenue generated through sales — summer jobs.

"We've been providing employment for high school age kids for 35 years," Armstrong noted. "Now some of these folks have kids of their own and I'm working with their kids."

It's a good summer job, said Chuck Drydek, one of the George Family stand's assistant managers. He's been working the stand for about seven years now. What started out as a part-time job while in school was out has turned into tradition.

"Now it's just like, 'its summer, let's go sell some fireworks,'" he said.

Drydek only counts the years he's worked more than 100 hours as an actual year at the stand. Oftentimes, he and other workers will put in 200 to 300 hours in a summer, culminating in a near all-day, all-night sale from July 3 into July 4. He's seen customers put down $3,000-$3,500 on merchandise in one visit.

When asked how much he makes, if its relative or similar to other possible summertime jobs out there, he, too is mum.

"Yeah, pretty much," he says. "Only this job, there's no application. Here, you've got to know somebody that works here that will put in a good word for you."

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