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Published June 29 2012

The business of BOOM: July 4 season is 'go time' for area fireworks retailers

HORACE, N.D. - It’s not rocket science. Even a kid can tell you the appeal of fireworks.

“Because they explode!” said 8-year-old Alex Schenck, explaining why he likes them so much.

The best part?

“Launching them,” he said.

He and his family were at Starr Fireworks off Interstate 29 near Horace on Wednesday to get their annual supply of Independence Day fireworks.

For American families, the Fourth of July and fireworks are linked like Thanksgiving and turkey. And for folks in the fireworks business, that means right now is “go time.”

“I’ve had years where we’ve been so busy I’ve just forgot it was my birthday,” said Ron Knutson, the founder of Memory Fireworks whose birthday falls on June 29.

Memory Fireworks started out of the back of a U-Haul and now boasts 33 locations.

“There’s always something to do” during the busy season, Knutson said.

Johnny Starr, owner of Starr Fireworks, estimated he does 75 percent of his annual retail business during the July Fourth season.

Starr enjoys the explosion of busyness that comes with the season.

“I’m like a firework myself,” he said.

Other outfits take a different approach, opening just for the Fourth of July season. One of those is Black Powder Fireworks, which has 15 locations in North Dakota, including two sites near West Fargo.

Brad Schmitz, owner of Black Powder, is in his seventh year in business. Schmitz initially envisioned fireworks being his sole source of income, but later found the income didn’t justify that. He was also concerned about the risk of depending on a business in which there is such a small window in which to make a profit. He and a partner work in the frozen food business.

Even though the business is seasonal, it doesn’t mean Schmitz forgets about fireworks the rest of the year. He said he’s doing something with the fireworks business year-round, finding locations, handling shipping, and more. And Knutson said at Memory, which is also seasonal, they’re already working on new products for Independence Day 2013.

It’s the location

Most large cities don’t allow the sale of fireworks within city limits, which Schmitz said presents a challenge. While it means it’s cheaper to get the real estate for the business, it also takes the business farther away from its clientele.

“And fireworks is a real impulse-driven business,” he said. Many people go to the first place they see.

That means fireworks businesses compete for areas right outside the cities.

Not all cities are closed to fireworks businesses. The smaller the city, the more likely it will allow fireworks sales, Schmitz said.

Horace is one such small town. It’s home to Valley Fireworks at 720 Main St. Kevin Johnson and Matt Langlie started the business, which was open for the first time this year on Wednesday.

“It’ll be wild in here tonight,” Johnson said the day Valley Fireworks opened.

This year could be a challenge for fireworks dealers because Independence Day falls on Wednesday instead of on the weekend. Generally speaking, that’s not good news in the fireworks industry.

But Johnson said that judging from phone calls, presales and Web traffic, it’s looking like a good year.

Starr agreed. He hasn’t seen a let-up in sales thus far this season.

Jamie Breyer, part owner and manager with the multi-location Generous Jerry’s Fireworks, said it’s too early to tell what the impact will be.

Keys to success

Local fireworks retailers say service to the customers is one of the keys

to success.

Breyer’s family has been in the business for more than 40 years. He discussed the importance of hearing what the customers say they want and being able to direct them to that product.

It’s important to make “sure they have a blast on their Fourth of July,” he said.

Knutson, of Memory Fireworks, pointed to quality, price, and good, experienced employees who know the product.

“Some people have been with us over 20 years,” he said.

There’s also an administrative/oversight side to the business. While Starr has a passion for fireworks, he described it as a “very scary industry.”

There is, after all, a lot riding on just a few days. He also works in wholesale and said that helps some. Still, you have to be good at budgeting and saving in his line of work, Starr said.

And with fireworks, like any business, the unexpected can throw a serious wrench into the works. Schmitz remembers a storm in 2007 that he said produced 80 mph winds and caused a tent to collapse.

“It was unbelievable,” he said.

One of the poles holding up the structure snapped in half, yet he said they were able to save about 70 to 80 percent of the product.

Enjoying the business

Even though the business can be stressful, Schmitz said he enjoys it.

“What it all boils down to is you’re selling fireworks,” he said. “And that’s fun.”

Scott Rotvold, a North Dakota State University student, is one of Schmitz’s employees.

“It’s a lot of work, you know, but it’s a lot of fun, too,” he said. It’s not your typical summer job.

One of his favorite parts is seeing the children’s’ eyes light up when they find what they’re looking for.

Johnson and Langlie operate Valley Fireworks with the help of their families. For them, it’s more of a hobby than a money-making venture. They get to watch the young people who come into the shop grow up over the years.

“They show up on their bikes; then they show up in their cars,” Langlie said.

Fittingly, both Johnson and Langlie are involved in a local pyrotechnics club, and they’re not alone in having a soft spot for the explosive.

“I live, eat and breathe fireworks,” Starr said.

The downside for Starr is the letdown after the July Fourth rush.

“It goes from two or three hundred people in the store to none (the day after),” he said.

“I wait all year for this, but I don’t want to see it go,” Starr said. “I wish that this could be all year long.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734

The Law

These are the basic fireworks rules in the following municipalities.

Fargo: It is illegal to possess, use or purchase fireworks in Fargo. This includes smaller items such as firecrackers and sparklers.

Moorhead: Explosive and aerial fireworks are prohibited for public sale, possession and use in Moorhead. Some nonaerial consumer fireworks such as fountains and sparklers are permitted.

West Fargo: It is illegal to possess, use or purchase fireworks in West Fargo. This includes smaller items such as firecrackers and sparklers.

Dilworth: Explosive and aerial fireworks are prohibited for public sale, possession and use in Dilworth. Some nonaerial consumer fireworks are permitted. Examples of legal fireworks include items such as sparklers, cones and tubes that emit sparks, and novelty items like snakes and party poppers.

What can you buy where?

Out-of-state residents can purchase fireworks in North Dakota at any time of the year. North Dakota residents can only purchase fireworks in North Dakota from June 27 to July 5. In-state residents may purchase novelty items such as sparklers outside of those dates.

While Minnesota businesses cannot sell aerial or exploding fireworks at any time, those fireworks that they are allowed to sell may be sold at any time regardless of the purchaser’s state of residency.

Places in the region to get your fireworks

Memory Fireworks

At the intersection of I-29 and Cass County Road 20, north of Fargo

Off I-29 near exit 60 in the city of Frontier

Off I-29 near exit 56 south of Fargo

Off I-94 on the Red River Valley Fairgrounds, West Fargo

Off I-94 in Casselton, N.D.

Exit 338 from I-94 in Mapleton, N.D.

Valley Fireworks

720 Main St., Horace, N.D.

Starr Fireworks

10908 38th St. S., Horace

TNT Fireworks

415 34th St. N., Dilworth

2135 W. Main Ave., West Fargo

Generous Jerry’s Fireworks

5321 35th St. S., Frontier, N.D.

Northeast corner of I-29 and County Rd. 20, north of Fargo

1201 13th Ave. S.W., West Fargo

Black Powder Fireworks

Off I-94 at exit 343, West Fargo

Off I-94 near exit 342 on the south frontage road, west of West Fargo

Joe Blow Fireworks

205 Main St., Wild Rice, N.D.