The Background


In the winter of 1999/2000 the city of Fort Worth exercised its right under Texas law to declare consumer fireworks a nuisance and in the process shut down three sets of fireworks stands that sat just north of Keller. A Nelson’s Fireworks stand was among the stands shut down. That next summer, we had relocated further north to a location along Hwy 114, to the west of Roanoke and to the north of Fort Worth.

In the spring of 2002, we built the 12,000 square foot warehouse store. In the fall of 2008 I was contacted by the (then) city manager of Roanoke. He explained that the city intended to annex the land upon which our store sits. I expressed my concern at the time that this would spell the end of our fireworks store.

As it turned out, the city of Roanoke did annex the land, but entered into an agreement to allow the 3 fireworks concerns affected to continue selling fireworks for the next 2 years (summer of 2009 and 2010). The city council vote adopting the agreement was 4 in favour and 2 opposed.

About 2 years later, the exercise was repeated. Another agreement (really simply an extension of the first) was presented for another 2 years. This time the city council vote was 5 in favour and 1 abstention.

2012


In the spring of 2012 we approached the city manager of Roanoke about the prospect of either renewing the agreement for another 2 years or perhaps trying for something longer term. We were under the impression that given the (then) 3 years of sales continuing without any hints of any issues as far as the city was concerned, and given that the council (consisting of the same members for the 1st vote as for the 2nd) went from 2 against the 1st time to 0 against and 1 abstention the 2nd time; we figured chances were good for our store’s continued existence.

It turns out we were mistaken.

The city manager expressed doubt about the prospects of our store getting any kind of further extension. When asked why not, he expressed concern over “use”; that is the use of the land for an activity (the retail sale of fireworks) that was a prohibited use within the city. This revelation took place around early May. As an attempt to show our level of commitment to both the store and the city, we sent the city the outline of a proposal of things we were prepared to do to keep our store from being shut down. You can read that here. Basically, we were/are willing to make aesthetic improvements to both the building and parking lot, and improve the building itself to meet any and all city codes.

The summer 2012 fireworks season was approaching (for which we were still able to sell at the Roanoke store) and we basically were focused on that at this point in time. After the season wound down, we began to reengage our dialogue with Roanoke. We had many discussions with the city manager. A primary goal (from our perspective at least) of these discussions was to try and better understand the issues/concerns of the city that led them to believe that closing down our store was in the best interests of Roanoke.

We never got any what I would consider to be “good” reasons. At this point in time (the fall of 2012) the only real reason offered was simply the “prohibited use” rationale. As the (minor, at least in our part of Texas) 2013 New Year’s season approached, it became apparent we were not going to have a deal in place to let us open that winter.

At this point in time, we decided to make a more thorough and reasoned argument. The result was this packet further explaining both what we were prepared to do, some benefits to the city to not shutting us down, and some negatives to the city if they were to shut us down.

2013


Around February 2013 the long-time serving city manager of Roanoke accepted the same position at a neighbouring city. The new city manager was installed sometime around March. We met with him on three separate occasions. Initially the discussions with the new city manager seemed positive.

During the time we were in discussion with the new city manager my dad went to visit each of the council members to hand them the packet we created and try to address any issues or concerns each may have. One council member expressed a concern that the building wasn’t sprinkled. One expressed concern about whether people knew they were not allowed to shoot fireworks off inside the city. Another indicated he would support our continued existence if the fire marshal didn’t oppose it. This seemed a constructive, positive development. We had a plan (one way or another) to sprinkle the building (more on that below); we have passed out flyers (and had info on the website) for years about park and pop locations (and we had never heard any complaints, nor is there any evidence of, increased prohibited fireworks use inside the city since our store was annexed); and as for the fire marshal, we know it is the “company line” of the fire service industry to “leave it to the professionals” (see the “Public Safety” section in this memo)—however, we have a positive working relationship with the fire department of the city.

In our discussions with the new city manager there were a few issues that kept popping up. An early one was sprinkling the building and getting city services to the property. It seems that this issue turned out to be a red herring of sorts, and to explain all the ins and outs (that we know of at least) really tends to make one’s head hurt. Another issue discussed was the hyper seasonal nature of the business. The city was concerned that the store is only open for a little over three weeks a year (state law limits the selling seasons in Texas to 22 days a year). At one point I asked the city manager if the concern about the seasonal nature was a revenue concern or a non-revenue concern. He indicated it wasn’t really about the revenue. At that point I kind of jokingly suggested that if simply the fact that the building wouldn’t be open for much of the year was a concern of the city, I could hire some of our employees in the off season to park various cars in the parking lot and move them around from day to day.

It really began to feel as if this was a lost cause (at least trying to work constructively with city officials to keep the store from being closed down). I really started to get the vibe that it was simply a case of a common, deep rooted anti fireworks bias that exists in much of city governments across Texas. We still tried however, and the issue of the future of our store was placed on the agenda as a discussion item for the 23 April city council meeting. Our final design proposal.

The 23 April city council meeting.


The day prior to the meeting I visited with councilman Dion Jones. Dion is the newest member of the council and the only member not on the council for the votes in 2008 and 2010 (granting us each of the 2 year extensions to continue operations). Dion also appears to be the only member who favours not shutting down our store. In visiting with Dion, he informed me that at the meeting scheduled for the next day, adoption of the new fire code would be presented and voted on (see the agenda here; “New Business” #3).

This was significant.

When a city like Roanoke adopts a fire code, it will typically adopt a “model” code and then add local amendments to better tailor it to the city’s specific situation. The last time Roanoke had adopted a fire code was sometime in 2007 or 2006 (from what I have been able to figure). At that time, Roanoke passed a local amendment that authorised the city council to have the discretion to enter into agreements with fireworks sellers to continue operations despite having been annexed into the city. This was the mechanism that permitted the city the ability (if they, the council, chose) to permit what was otherwise a non-permitted use.

The published agenda does not list local amendments. However, I learned from Dion, that the amendment granting the council this authority (to permit the sale of fireworks) was not included in the new fire code to be considered and adopted. If the new code was adopted without the old amendment, the council will have effectively stripped themselves of the ability to enter into an agreement to keep our store from being shut down.

Upon learning of this, we put the word out to try and get supporters to show up at the meeting—prior to this we figured a meeting where a vote on an actual proposal to allow us to continue selling would be where we would need a show of support. Despite only having about 24 hours’ notice, 30 or 40 people showed up at the meeting to support our cause.

Unfortunately, adoption of the fire code was #3 on the agenda and discussion of our situation was #8 on the agenda. The only discussion about the fire code came in the form of questions from Dion trying to find out who was responsible for leaving out the fireworks amendment. The answer was not immediately presented. Basically, the city’s position is that there wasn’t really a “decision” to leave it out, but rather all amendments must be affirmatively inserted and thus you can’t really say somebody made a decision not to insert an amendment.

Once the new fire code was passed, the discussion about our situation (at least in terms of a further agreement along the lines we had been operating under) became academic. Instead of presenting our case and the positives we could continue to bring to the city, we instead tried to focus on gaining an understanding of where the city was coming from. I still felt there was a (slim) chance that there was some “thing” that was affecting the council’s decisions and actions—some kind of development thing or issue that for whatever reason we had not been made aware of yet. But no, the exchanges basically devolved into what I would consider the traditional bias city governments have against consumer fireworks.

What we plan to do


We believe that the reasons behind the decades old bias cities have against consumer fireworks (in some situations) are no longer valid. If the fireworks seller is operating out of a modern building that is up to city code and aesthetically pleasing, the stigma of the old, run down wooden fireworks stand no longer applies (and nothing against old, wooden stands—that’s how we got our start). Fireworks in 2013 are made with much higher quality than 20 or 30 years ago; the incidents of accidents and damage caused by consumer fireworks has dropped dramatically over this time. Further, information about where it is permitted to shoot fireworks is much easier to attain in the age of the internet and social networking than 10 or 20 years ago.

Now I will be the first to acknowledge that being in the retail fireworks business for over 20 years (not to mention that I have a strong emotional interest in seeing our store not shut down) gives me a perspective that is bias in favor the above position. However, in a similar vein, I believe that those who have served in city government for many years (and many of them have served honestly and done an admirable job) have a perspective that is different from the general public. We have spent over a year trying to get to the bottom of just what the objections the city has to our continued existence. The vast majority of people (and I include myself in this group) have very little idea as to what exactly city government does and their rationale for doing things. However, the things that a city government does (and the reasons behind those actions) are not rocket science. If one wanted to take an interest and try to understand why a city took a certain course of action, the motivations and rationale behind those actions—though perhaps not clear at first look—I would imagine would always be comprehensible to a “normal” person when such motivations and rationale were explained.

From what we have heard from the city’s point of view, we do not believe it is in the city of Roanoke’s best interest to permanently shut down our business. As long as we continue to believe this is the case, we will actively support candidates to Roanoke’s city council that view this issue in a similar light. Thus, we hope that the summer following the next election (next summer), our store will be back open.

How you can help


If have read this far, you most likely enjoy shooting fireworks. Anybody who enjoys fireworks can help by sending current council members messages explaining simply and honestly why you like fireworks and the fact that (at least in Texas) the number of places where one can go to buy good, quality fireworks is diminishing.

Here is a link to the Roanoke city council page. E-mail addresses for each council member can be found here. Please, if you do send a message, be respectful and constructive. I do not think that these people are out to get us, but rather it is simply a long-standing bias against consumer fireworks that is common throughout many city governments.

Hardly anybody ever attends city council meetings, and even a smaller number of people actually take the time to express their opinions to council members. If even just a small handful of people took the time to express their support for the continued existence of our store, it could really help our situation.

Thank you for your support.

 


 

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