Crowds on the Boardwalk near Fifth Street watch fireworks blast off in the distance during the city’s 2019 Fourth of July show. The show was the last one that happened on the holiday and officials are preparing now to re-bid both the Fourth of July and New Years Eve shows for the future.

Higher cost, double vendors expected through RFP

Ocean City is officially shopping for a new holiday fireworks vendor.

Despite warnings of higher costs and difficulty finding a bidder because of Ocean City’s challenging staging locations, council members are all-in on shopping for a new company — or companies — to put on the best shows possible on both the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve.

“We need to step up our game,” Councilman Lloyd Martin said during a work session Tuesday. “There were a lot of disappointed people this July 4th. When you see them, you talk to them, they’re out in public, they were upset. It’s a family thing. It’s a big deal.”

The city has not hosted a July 4 fireworks show on the actual holiday for the past three summers. After missing 2020 because of covid, city officials planned shows in 2021, but were forced to cancel them at the last-minute after the fireworks brought by the vendor prematurely went off during setup on the beach on the morning of July 4. The mishap forced cancelation of both the inlet fireworks and a show set that night for Northside Park. City officials promptly cut ties with the vendor, Pennsylvania-based Starfire Corporation, and began shopping for a new one.

In January, they signed a three-year agreement with Ohio-based American Fireworks Company to host shows on both July 4 and New Year’s Eve. The vendor was the sole bidder for the contract, which had a total $318,000 price tag. But less than two weeks before this year’s Fourth of July shows, the vendor called them off, citing staffing issues.

The cancelation sent the city shopping for a new vendor once again, which, according to tourism officials, may not be so easy.

“This past July 4th was quite a learning curve for us,” said Frank Miller, the city’s director of special events, at Tuesday’s work session. “We knew that there was a shortage of manpower across the fireworks industry. We had heard that there was a lot of consolidation happening … Where companies were canceling shows. Those shows were out looking for new providers.”

The market shift basically made the industry a vendor’s market.

“The opportunities … basically allowed the industry, the fireworks display companies, to be able to pick and choose which sites they wanted to contract with, verses previous years where they really were out hunting for opportunities,” Miller explained.

The change ultimately put Ocean City at a disadvantage, as Miller said that it is not “one of the more desirable locations” for vendors to stage shows.

Northside Park, which has been the site of one of the Fourth of July shows and the New Year’s Eve display for years, is an especially difficult location, Miller added. New Year’s is particularly bad, as the setup for Winterfest of Lights forced vendors to set off the fireworks from the end of the park pier.

“I had a call, an informal meeting, with some of shooters who worked this past July 4th. They had been here before and their response to me was they will never shoot from the end of the Northside Park pier,” City Manager Terry McGean said during Tuesday’s meeting.

While seeking guidance for issuing a new request for proposals for this year’s show, Miller and Tom Perlozzo, the city’s director of tourism and business development, suggested either moving the New Year’s Eve show to the inlet, or eliminating it altogether.

They also suggested signing contracts with two vendors, instead of just one as the city has done in the past, to ensure the shows will happen.

Council members were on board with the two-vendor option, but most of them balked at canceling the New Year’s Eve show.

“That’s the one family event we really have that’s a big family event for New Year’s Eve,” Mayor Rick Meehan said. “There are a lot of people, a lot of local people and a lot of people, who come here with their families for New Year’s Eve. I just think it’s something special.”

Council members ultimately voted unanimously, with Councilman Peter Buas absent, to keep the option for the New Year’s show in the RFP, and give interested vendors a choice to bid on the shows separately or together.

Miller pointed out that while splitting the shows will improve the odds against cancelations, it will likely also bump up the cost.

But Meehan and the council said they would take that risk.

“As far as the cost is concerned I think we just have to realize, the cost is going to be more. The cost of doing these shows is going to cost us more than it did in the past,” Meehan said.

He added that, along with the undesirable location, other venues were paying more money than the city has been the last couple of years.

“We’re going to have to step up,” he said. “We know what it’s like to not have fireworks on the Fourth of July. It’s not where we want to be. It’s one of those things if it’s going to cost us some more money out of the tourism budget to make sure we have fireworks in those locations, I think we all have to accept that.”

McGean said after the meeting that he does not think it is likely that the fireworks will go off at Northside Park on New Year’s Eve, and could instead move to the inlet downtown. He also said the RFP will go out in time for the contract to be bid for this New Year’s Eve.

Council members were also adamant about ensuring that fireworks will be set off on July 4, not the surrounding days as they were forced to this year with shows on July 3 and 5.

“This is July 4th. July 4th is Independence Day. Not July 3rd, July 5th,” Councilman John Gehrig said during the work session “… I’m not in favor of July 4th fireworks on July 3rd or July 5th.”

This story appears in the Sept. 16, 2022 print edition of the OC Today.

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