After decades of tradition, could the Maplewood fireworks become free to all?
Each year, the Maplewood 4th of July Committee helps to offset the costs of the fireworks by charging admission to a fenced off area in Memorial Park for prime seats to see the fireworks (sponsorships also cover a portion of the cost of the event).
Last year, the committee gained permission from the town to add fencing to an additional portion of the park north of Oakview Avenue. Events within the fenced-in park were accessible only through the purchase of a wristband.
After much discussion on social media, TC members considered the problems of charging residents admittance to a public park while trying to balance the need to pay for the annual celebration which has been a hallmark of life in Maplewood for more than a century.
Resident Carrie Gordon spoke during public comments, saying that the cost of admission was prohibitive for large families and also that she observed that the vast majority of people viewing the event outside the fences in front of town hall were people of color.
TC member Frank McGehee took issue with that characterization.
“Not true,” said McGehee. “It’s all people of all backgrounds” outside the fences.
However, McGehee said he “would like to find a way to make it free for all” and said he was open to some kind of subsidy from the town.
Deputy Mayor Nancy Adams said that she had stayed outside the fences when she was a young mother with three small children and found the cost of admission too high. Adams was also interested in making the event “as inclusive as possible” but said she realized that offsetting the amount raised through the purchase of thousands of wristbands would be difficult.
Nonetheless, Adams found it problematic that residents — who, she noted, already pay high property taxes — do not have free access to a town park for an entire day on a national holiday. “Residents should be able to get into their park and participate for free,” said Adams. The Deputy Mayor said she was interested in volunteering for a committee to explore new funding options for the event.
Later in the discussion, Adams also suggested that Maplewood should approach surrounding towns which had canceled their fireworks in recent years. She noted that the town already had reached out to South Orange and Irvington regarding policing support for the event, but said that the conversation could explore other forms of support.
Committee member Greg Lembrich said the town fireworks, like Maplewoodstock, was “a victim of its own success” with a “reputation beyond Maplewood.”
However, said Lembrich, “I’ve become uncomfortable with people paying to get into the park.” Though not the intent, Lembrich said that the pricing made the event “not accessible to many.”
“The fact that it’s been this way for ages is not a good reason to perpetuate” the practice, added Lembrich. “We’ve reached a tipping point.”
Lembrich said he was willing to work with the Maplewood 4th of July Committee and town departments to “bring down the costs — maybe charging for certain things and not for others.” Added Lembrich, “I’m not against making this a township event.”
Adams interjected to note that the township does already contribute to the event through the services of the the departments of Public Works, Police and Fire for the event.
Tom Pascuite, the chair of the Maplewood 4th of July Committee, told TC members that he agreed “with everything stated.”
“If the community comes up with another way to pay, we’re all ears!” said Pascuite, who said that he grew up in Maplewood and always sat outside the fences (which were an even more daunting curtain back in the day, he added). Pascuite said he would “love to see the community surveyed” on alternative methods for funding the event.
Pascuite also defended the pricing, noting that 2/3 of the tickets purchased online were purchased at a discount.
Mayor Vic DeLuca seemed open to the discussion, adding that there was one 4th of July activity he would be interested in eliminating.
“We can do without the dunk tank,” said DeLuca, to laughter.