Fireworks Event on Track for 2010

The bad news is that 2009 marked the first time in 47 years that there has not been a Fourth of July event at Fort Vancouver.  The good news is that next year, the event will be back, stronger and better than before.

"We needed to step back, analyze what market changes have occurred, and re-energize the event," said Elson Strahan, president and CEO of the Fort Vancouver National Trust, which assumed responsibility for the event in 2004.

Historically, the Fourth activities at the Fort have been funded by firework stand sales – the county has six and the city of Vancouver has eight stand permits that support the event.  In addition, up until 10 or 15 years ago, both the county and city had ordinances that required other fireworks stands to contribute revenue to the event as well.

And for a long time, that model worked, said Strahan. The county's population grew and the number of fireworks stands grew, along with revenue. But when the county and city's firework ordinances were overturned in court, support for the event began to wane and competition between Fourth of July events heightened. At the same time, the size of the Fort's celebration continued to increase – leading to what Strahan called the "perfect financial storm."

By 2008, the event's budget shortfall had grown to $50,000 – funds the Trust had to provide out of its operating budget in order to keep the event on track. Knowing that the Trust could not continue in that vein, Strahan notified the City of Vancouver on Sept. 5, 2008 that there would not be an event the following year.  Instead, Strahan and his team analyzed the event from top to bottom to find a funding model that would provide a stable base for the event for years to come. The result, said Strahan, is just plain business sense: "we can build an event that matches our budget."

At the heart of the new funding model is an agreement between the Trust and three fireworks wholesalers:  Phantom Fireworks, Western Fireworks, and Bomber Brothers. The contract is not based on percentage of sales from these companies' fireworks stands, explained Strahan, but rather an agreed-upon amount of money paid each year, with a yearly inflationary adjustment.

For the 2010 event, the contract payment is $100,000. In addition, Burlington Northern San Francisco (BNSF) has given the Trust a $20,000 grant to relaunch the event. To meet the 2010 budget of $270,000 – down markedly from $450,000 in 2008 – the Trust will rely on sponsorships, vendor fees, donations and gate receipts, said Strahan.

The latter source of funding is new to the event. Previously, gate admission was free, although donations were gladly accepted. But with an annual attendance of around 60,000 people, the event garnered at-the-gate donations of only about $45,000 – less than $1 per person, according to Strahan.  Even though the Trust is considering a small gate fee, Strahan offered his assurances to the public that "once you're in, activities will be at little or no additional cost."

And though next year's budget has been slashed almost in half from 2008, Strahan said that cost-saving measures will enable the event to be better than ever. For example, for the last few years, the fireworks have been set off from expensive barges in the middle of the Columbia River – which benefits some Portland residents, but not necessarily Vancouverites sitting a half-mile away on the Fort's meadow. In 2010, the pyrotechnics instead will be set off from the ground, just north of the runways at the Pearson Air Museum.

Those sitting at Fort Vancouver will be literally underneath the aerial displays, said Strahan. "They'll be able to pick up the concussions – it will be an intimate environment. It will be better than we have seen in the past several years."

Another change will be a return to the family orientation of the event. Strahan reported that the Trust had received feedback that families felt "pushed aside" in recent years, during which the event's focus had morphed into a "music fest."   Next year, the event will feature more family activities to better match community expectations.

"The whole thing needed to be retooled," concluded Strahan, hoping that next year's leaner and more kid-friendly Fourth of July will ensure the financially stability of the Fort's celebration for another 47 years – or longer.

For more information about Fort Vancouver events, including  info on how to donate or volunteer, visit

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