August 1, 2014

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Pennsylvania town relishes being Fireworks Capital of America

Tom Coombe
The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

   NEW CASTLE, Pa. — Welcome to the Fireworks Capital of America. This little Pennsylvania city on the border with Ohio has called itself that since 1990, and made it official late last year, thanks to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
   At one time, there were seven companies in New Castle making fireworks. Today, there are only two, Zambelli Internationale and Pyrotecnico Industries Inc., but those two are among the nation’s top five fireworks companies, according to the American Pyrotechnic Association.
   The fireworks that celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty? They came from Zambelli. The annual fireworks show in Allentown? Zambelli has done many of those. Dorney Park? Zambelli again. Ever see fireworks at an Eagles game? Those were brought to you by Pyrotecnico.
   “When the sun goes down, we shine,” Zambelli’s Web site tells visitors, and it could be a slogan for the city itself.
   Walk around New Castle and you won’t see anything that really says “fireworks,” other than banners hung on the street lights, which feature red and yellow fireworks explosions. The city is made up of tree-lined residential neighborhoods surrounding a quiet downtown.
   But spend enough time in New Castle and surrounding Lawrence County, and you’ll get to see the fireworks companies in action. Their products are often the highlight of public events.
   “We’re the type of people to have fireworks at football games if the team scores a touchdown,” said JoAnn McBride, executive director of the local tourist agency. “It’s not unusual to have fireworks at weddings.”
      Or, in one case, at funerals. When Zambelli Internationale founder George Zambelli died in 2003, there were fireworks on the night he was buried. Over the next few weeks, fireworks will close out — among other things — the Slovenian culture festival, the Western Pennsylvania Balloon Quest, the Lawrence County Fair, the St. Vitus Parish Festival, and the Fireworks Capital of America Fireworks Festival, set for July 14. Pyrotecnico and Zambelli take turns providing the festival’s fireworks. It’s Pyrotecnico’s turn this year.
   “We’ll do it, as long as we don’t have to do it on the Fourth of July,” said company spokesman Vic Laurenza, giving a tour of the Pyrotecnico main office.
     The office sits just outside New Castle on a quiet rural road. Visitors expecting a colorful, Willy Wonka-ish experience will be disappointed. Fireworks might be loud and flashy, but the process of getting them ready isn’t. The property consists of a nondescript office building and a warehouse. Outside, a few dozen rental trucks wait for shipments. A few days earlier, Laurenza said, 135 trucks were parked there. Across the street are several smaller buildings where workers assemble components for fireworks displays around the country.
   “Everyone thinks fireworks factories are one big building, like a General Motors plant,” said Pyrotecnico company spokesman Vic Laurenza. In reality, they keep the products separate, for safety reasons, with different workers doing different things in each building, getting the fireworks boxed and ready to go. The fireworks themselves are made in China.
   It wasn’t always this way. In the 1920s, more fireworks came out of Lawrence County than anywhere else in the country. According to the tourism agency, the first fireworks company in New Castle opened in 1897, started by Italian immigrant Leopoldo Fazzoni. Some of his workers started their own companies, including Constantino Vitale, whose Vitale Fireworks eventually became Pyrotecnico. George Zambelli purchased and renamed Fazzoni Fireworks in the late 1940s.
   Today, the two companies each employ about 50 people full time, as well as seasonal workers who set off the displays all over the country. Pyrotecnico has done the fireworks for the Democratic National Convention and Super Bowl XXXVIII, while Zambelli’s clients include the Kentucky Derby’s annual “Thunder Over Louisville” display.
   Don’t bother pointing out the humor of the nation’s fireworks capital being part of a state that allows its residents to buy the smaller, smoking/sparkling fireworks sold at supermarkets and roadside tents, but not the type that shoot up into the air and explode.
   People in New Castle will tell you that: a) Those kinds of fireworks don’t come out of New Castle and b) Ohio is only a few miles away. Drive through the city of Youngstown and you’ll find fireworks companies such as Sky King and Phantom, which can sell to Pennsylvania residents.
   It’s almost like what’s happening in eastern Pennsylvania along the Delaware River, where Phantom and Sky King have stores, but with a crucial difference. The stores in Pennsylvania are permitted to sell only to out-of-staters; they must keep Pennsylvania residents out. In Ohio, fireworks are available to everyone, as long as they sign a form promising to take them out of state within 48 hours.
   “They call it `the liar’s form,”’ said Bill Weimer, vice president of Phantom.
   It was a busy day at Phantom’s superstore outside Youngstown, with dozens of shoppers roaming the aisles.
   Rob Donavan, of the Knoxville section of Pittsburgh, loaded up a shopping cart with his father. He had the same complaint New Jersey residents often have about the fireworks laws in their state.
   “It’s stupid,” he said. “If you have responsible people doing it, you should be able to do what you want.”
   They’ve been setting off fireworks for 30 years, putting on a little show for the family each July 4.
   “The kids love it,” Donavan said. “Then, they’re like, `Is that it?”’ He acted out the rest of the imagined conversation: “It’s been going for an hour, whaddaya mean, `Is that it?”’
   Overhead, a TV screen showed off Phantom products in action. It helps people know what they’re buying, Weimer said, and adds a little bit of high tech pizazz to the store. It’s something companies like Zambelli and Pyrotecnico don’t need to worry about.
   “Their pizazz,” Weimer said, “is up in the sky.”
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