June 30, 2013

Maine fireworks sales go off like a rocket

About $7.6 million was spent through May, raising three times the tax dollars originally estimated.

By CLARKE CANFIELD, The Associated Press

PORTLAND — Sales at Maine's fireworks stores have far surpassed initial projections when fireworks became legal last year for the first time in 63 years.

Zach Gushing
click image to enlarge

Pyro City Maine worker Zach Gushing carries a jumbo box of aerial and ground fireworks Friday at the Winslow retail store.

Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press

click image to enlarge

Fireworks fill the shelves at a Pyro City retail store in Winslow. Sales at Maine’s fireworks stores have far surpassed initial projections when fireworks became legal last year for the first time in 63 years.

The Associated Press

When legislators debated a bill in 2011 seeking to legalize fireworks, the Maine Revenue Services estimated that fireworks stores would generate about $120,000 a year in sales taxes. In reality, the state collected $380,000 in sales taxes for the latest 12-month period ending May 31, according to the agency.

With a sales tax of 5 percent, that means fireworks stores had sales of $7.6 million in the past year.

The Maine Revenue Services' original projections were somewhat conservative since fireworks were new and there was no baseline from which to work, said spokesman David Heidrich. Still, the numbers are impressive, he said.

"The revenues generated by these retailers have far exceeded expectations," he said.

Fireworks became legal in Maine on Jan. 1, 2012, after legislators – with the support of Gov. Paul LePage – repealed a 1949 law that outlawed them. State law limits fireworks to municipalities where they're approved and requires people to be 21 to purchase and use them.

Doug Damon, a former state representative from Bangor, said one reason he sponsored the 2011 bill that legalized fireworks was because he thought it would create jobs and business opportunities.

By last Fourth of July, about a dozen fireworks stores had opened. There are now 18 stores statewide with scores of employees, according to the Maine fire marshal's office, which licenses the stores.

"Fireworks were coming into Maine anyways but without the benefits of jobs or taxes," Damon said.

He's not surprised sales are strong. "This is only the first year," he said. "It's still growing."

Steve Marson owns five Pyro City Maine stores – in Manchester, Winslow, Ellsworth, Edgecomb and Presque Isle – with about 40 full-time employees. Every employee he hired last year was jobless when he hired them, he said.

Sales have been steady, he said, and he expects them to grow as people get used to fireworks being legal. The strongest sales are around the Fourth of July, but he thinks fireworks will become more popular throughout the year as people buy them for other occasions.

"People are using them for cookouts, birthday parties or to have small backyard fireworks displays for entertainment," he said.

The newest store, Black Bear Fireworks in the eastern Maine town of Machias, opened in late May and has five employees, said owner Wesley Graham.

There's plenty of room for growth in the industry in Maine, Graham said, and he eventually hopes to open five more stores.

But store owners have some uneasiness that lawmakers may again outlaw fireworks after investors have spent millions of dollars opening stores, he said.

"One of the big concerns is it will be taken from us, that the rug will be pulled out from under us," he said. "Or maybe there's too much invested at this point by Maine people. Too many jobs are being created and Maine needs that money."

Fireworks opponents have said fireworks are dangerous. There are no official statistics on fireworks accidents, but the state fire marshal last year said there were relatively few accidents on July 4 and nearly all of them were caused by people mishandling or misusing the fireworks.

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