HELEN — The Helen City Commission has decided to move forward with the city’s traditional Independence Day fireworks display.
“To me, the Fourth of July fireworks is a celebration of what we all know it to be,” Commissioner Steve Fowler said. “And it’s meant to be as such.”
At the commission’s July meeting, commissioners heard concerns from the audience about traffic, public safety and other issues associated with the holiday event.
But the heads of the city’s police, fire and public works departments told commissioners at Tuesday morning’s meeting that the event was manageable.
“To me, it just doesn't appear that there is a public safety heightened concern from what it’s been in all the years past, so I’m not in favor of canceling the fireworks,” Fowler said.
Commissioner Geneva Elwell agreed.
“We’ve worked a long time to get this Fourth of July event here, and I think we should continue,” Elwell said.
Commissioner Cinnamon Spurlock concurred.
“Like I stated before, if there’s public safety concern we absolutely should look at that, but I see absolutely no reason to cancel the fireworks at this time,” Spurlock said.
Commissioner Lee Landress said he has mixed feelings on the Independence Day fireworks display.
“I enjoy fireworks,” Landress said. “I’m looking at it strictly from spending other people’s money. I’m not sure that the money would not be better spent somewhere else, as in Christmas. But that’s strictly from the money aspect. If I’m spending the city’s money, then I’m expecting something for the citizens or the city in return.”
Landress also expressed concerns that unchecked the event could quickly outgrow the city’s capacity to regulate, as happened with an import car event.
“I also have the fear that if the crowds continue to grow it could go the way of SoWo,” Landress said. “At some point we get a crowd so big we can’t control that.”
Even with those concerns, Landress said, “I’m definitely not opposed to keeping the fireworks.”
Mayor Jeff Ash said Helen businesses told him the mid-week Independence Day this year was like a busy Saturday for them.
“That particular week may have been the biggest week this city has had retail wise and hotel wise,” Ash said.
After the meeting, Ash talked with AccessWDUN about the process city leaders took to decide to continue the fireworks display.
“The first thing I did was went to our department heads, who basically bear the responsibility of controlling these type events,” Ash said. “[Today] you heard from the police department that we had the best times ever to clean the town out after fireworks. You heard from EMS and fire that they were very satisfied with what had taken place. And we also, in talking with the general public, have come up with other alternative procedures that can be used — quicker controls put in effect earlier during the day to control your crowds, get them in place, let them have a good time.”
Ash stressed he and other commissioners believe the event is manageable given adequate planning and resources from the city’s public safety and public works departments.
“The main discussion was to make sure the event is safe,” Ash said. “I think that we clarified that, both from the people that work for this town but from what we heard from our business owners, that they like it, and we hope we can continue it. Every year will get better if we continue to have dialog about an event — what was good about it, what was bad about it, what can we change? And that’s exactly what we did this morning.”
Ash and other city leaders stressed continuing Helen’s Independence Day fireworks display is contingent upon the availability of the private property used to shoot the fireworks, which provides the required neutral zone in case one goes astray, as happened this year.
“The Wilkins property has always been used, and as long as they grant us permission we will contract with a very reputable company to do that, but I don’t think we can do that but one year at a time to spend the public’s money on fireworks and not have access to getting it back if it got canceled,” Ash said.
Commissioners stressed to City Manager Jerry Elkins the need for a one-year pyrotechnics contract rather than the two-year contracts used previously, and asked him to look at a contract release clause should the property not be available.