Milwaukee's July 3rd lakefront fireworks canceled; parks officials blame lack of sponsorship

NOW: Milwaukee’s July 3rd lakefront fireworks canceled; parks officials blame lack of sponsorship

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Milwaukee County Parks officials announced late Friday afternoon a beloved summer tradition, the July 3 lakefront fireworks, are canceled. The county's parks director even signaled the popular event might have fizzled out for good.

Guy Smith, the parks department's executive director, said the reason for this year's cancelation was the lack of a sponsor. Parks officials said, for last year's show, the fireworks alone cost $350,000. Additional costs, like extra staffing, dumpsters, fencing and porta potties added another $20,000.

"Even last year, when we did have sponsorship, we actually subsidized [costs]," Smith said. "We did not have enough dollars. We didn't make any money on the event."

News of the cancelation crushed Jim and Shannon Avery. The couple said they'd moved to Milwaukee from Denver eight months ago, and the first became enamored with Milwaukee about 10 years ago during a business trip. Jim's company had taken them out on a boat to watch the July 3 fireworks.

"We fell in love," Jim said. "That was a big factor for us moving here, was the 4th of July. We tell our family, 'You gotta come on the 4th of July.'"

The Averys said they couldn't understand why the county wouldn't make preserving the annual display a priority. They said during that first visit, they were taken aback by the festival-like atmosphere of people reserving spots at Veterans Park with tents and lawn chairs, grilling and playing games until sunset.

"I'm heartbroken. I'm in shock," Shannon said. "I can't think of a worse thing for them to do."

The Averys mentioned the increased county sales tax, which went from 0.5% to 0.9% in January. Smith said the increased revenue will help the parks department, but he said those dollars are going toward catching up on about $500 million worth of overdue maintenance as opposed to events.

"Whether it's redoing parkway roads, whether it's doing trails, whether it's doing playgrounds," Smith said. "Things like that."

Smith said even if a corporate sponsor tried to step in to save this year's fireworks, it'd be too late because of the logistical challenges of securing fireworks and any other needed equipment a little more than one month from July 3. 

It's been a rocky run from the lakefront fireworks display. The show was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, then put off again in 2021 with parks officials blaming a staffing shortage.

During a video conference with reporters Friday, Smith suggested parks officials are in no hurry to bring back the event next year.

"At this point, we believe that the 3rd of July fireworks have run their course," he said. "And we know it's been a tradition for folks, but we also have a lot of other great events and amenities."

Parks officials suggested smaller neighborhood celebrations this year for those seeking to preserve their families' fireworks tradition. There is a total of 14 Fourth of July fireworks shows scheduled throughout the Milwaukee County Parks system; each of those shows will be funded by the municipality in which they occur.

Shannon Avery said smaller shows don't compare to the feeling of taking in a fireworks extravaganza while on a boat floating along Lake Michigan. She got especially upset when told about Smith's comments suggesting the show might be permanently canceled.

"Oh, it's not run its course," she said. "I would say we actually traveled back just to go to the 3rd of July fireworks with our friends."

The Averys said what they'll miss most about the lakefront fireworks is the sense of unity, whether it's the midday tailgating or everyone making sure they're in place at dusk. That feeling of community will now have to come from somewhere else.

"It's the ability to be with people and having that same feeling and movement, whether you're on the shore or on the lake, you're watching both, and we're all in it together," Shannon said. "I just think that experience is everything."

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