Act of Independence

Shippensburg, Pa., woman in door-to-door battle to save town’s Fourth of July fireworks show

Washington Post

SHIPPENSBURG, Pa. — She has never felt confident with big numbers, so Kip Fordney brings along a college math major to count the money sure to pile up. Fordney, the head of Shippensburg’s parks and recreation department, walks through downtown carrying a 1-pound deli container turned into a collection cup and stops at each storefront to deliver a rehearsed pitch:

“We’re trying to save the Fourth of July fireworks,” she says, over and over. “Can you help?”

After each stop, Fordney, 49, hands the donations to assistant Eden Eliff, who thumbs through the checks and bills before offering a running total: “That’s $350 so far,” says Eliff.

“That’s all?” Fordney says. “Are you sure?”

No matter how many times they recount, the numbers don’t add up. Fireworks, held in Memorial Park every summer since the 1940s, cost $5,300, and a dwindling budget and lackluster donations have left Fordney responsible for raising every cent. If she fails, the town of 5,600 people in south-central Pennsylvania will forgo fireworks and cancel the disc jockey on its self-proclaimed “Best Day of Summer.” The residents who gather annually at the high school football field to lie on blankets, listen to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and drink free Wild Cherry Pepsi and Mountain Dew will instead be left to contemplate a dark sky, in yet the latest reminder of the economic crisis.

More than 40 communities across the country have already canceled their Fourth of July fireworks, conceding to a new reality: shooting off colorful explosives — an American birthright since 1777 — is now a luxury bordering on wasteful. Unlike in Washington, where tens of thousands will fight for position on the Mall, these are places that represent what Independence Day means in most of America — a hillside covered with friends and neighbors; fireworks set off by volunteers from the fire department; a small-town sense of community on a warm summer night.

Fordney refuses to forfeit Shippensburg’s tradition without a fight, especially since there are no other fireworks within 20 miles. She considers herself the vanguard of summer, and “summer is just sad without fireworks,” she says. So, on a humid Tuesday in June, she sips a morning soda and readies for a long day of fund-raising.

But where do you raise money, she wonders, in a town where nobody has any to spare?

They start at Kathy’s Deli which draws a good crowd for lunch. With a reputation for generous giving, Fordney hopes for $100. But, owner Kathy Pugh comes to the front counter, spots the donation can and shakes her head.

“I can tell you right off, it’s going to be hard for us to give you much,” Pugh says. She disappears into the back of the restaurant to talk to her husband. The couple risked their savings in 2008 to expand the restaurant, taking over the hair salon next door and splurging on wooden tables and wireless Internet access. Then the economy bottomed out and the new space remained mostly empty.

Pugh returns with a check for $50, and says: “I’m sorry. We’d like to give more.”

“Honestly, we really appreciate you giving anything,” Fordney says.

Fordney prides herself on stretching money, but $50 checks will only go so far. Shippensburg, facing budget cuts, allotted no money for fireworks this year, and the local car dealership that often sponsored the Fourth of July celebration went out of business last October. Most fireworks displays cost at least $20,000, but Fordney found a guy in Harrisburg who agreed to put on the show — the capstone of Shippenburg’s 10-hour holiday event — each year for $5,300.

Independence Day in Shippensburg begins at noon, when more than 300 kids flock to the swimming pool because Fordney waives the $5 entry fee. She drops cases of soda into the pool and hands out treats from garbage bags. Families picnic on the football field and stand en masse for the national anthem.

“It’s like Woodstock,” she says. “Everybody’s happy, and everybody’s a little bit wild.”

That blend of nostalgia, patriotism and town pride is what Fordney infuses into her fund-raising pitch — sometimes employing all three in a single sentence:

“The Fourth of July is a huge deal for this town and this country, and we don’t want to let everybody down — especially the kids, because it is such a big part of childhood,” Fordney tells one store owner.

Still, she walks away from most businesses with nothing but a new version of the same excuse:

UAt Lucky’s Auto Sales, where the same five used cars have sat in the lot since March, owner Christopher Phillips asks: “Can you come back later?”

U At Todd West’s State Farm Insurance agency, where West writes a check for $200 then searches his address book for others Fordney might call: “Most of these people probably aren’t going to help you right now. They’re hurting. I wish I had better advice.”

U At Shively Motors, where Bill O’Leary hands over a check for $50 instead of the $500 he donated last year: “I’m sure I don’t have to explain that things have been hard.”

The downtown locations exhausted, Fordney’s assistant counts the checks and announces the total: $650, plus a tentative promise of $1,000 from the local bank. That leaves her thousands of dollars short, with all of her best possibilities exhausted.

“I’m going to be up nights trying to figure out where that money is coming from,” she says.