Arts & Entertainment

Somers' Annual Independence Day Festivities Imperiled

Somers VFW color guard and town officials lead the Pledge of Allegiance at this year's event. Credits: Courtesy of Bill Wiegelman

SOMERS, N.Y.--Its centerpiece fireworks have spectacularly lighted Somers’ night sky for decades, but the town’s iconic Independence Day celebration could be scratched for 2018 by as early as next month.

That’s when the leaders of virtually all of Somers’ community organizations have been summoned to a meeting that will “determine if there is enough support to hold the event.”

In a letter to community organizations, the town noted a decline in both their participation and the number of residents attending the Reis Park festivities. “Therefore,” the letter warned, “we cannot make this event happen in 2018 without your help.” 

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The letter went out over the signature of Recreation Superintendent Steven Ralston. It asks the community organizations to specify what contributions—service or financial—they can make to keep the celebration going in the future. 

Supervisor Rick Morrissey told last week’s Town Board meeting that the letter had been sent to just about every organization on the town website.

 “We’re not getting the turnout; we’re not getting the revenues,” Morrissey told the board. “If the community does not want to support this event, then why have it?”

This year’s celebration, on June 24, attracted fewer than 1,000 people for fireworks viewing, a quarter of the size of the throng that watched four years ago.

Still, Morrissey made clear, he hoped not to cancel next year’s observance. 

“People look forward to this,” he said. “We want to have the event. And that is why we are outreaching to the community.”

But the fireworks show alone carries a $10,000 price tag. The town picks up that charge, asking for donations from the public to help offset the cost.

Over the years, circumstances have reshaped the Somers event, which was once an all-day observance on July 4 itself. Competing festivities, however, were seen as siphoning off spectators while holiday commitments sometimes made it tougher to recruit volunteers or hire musicians and deejays. So Somers’ celebration shifted about a decade ago to the last Saturday in June, a circumstance that had Somers observing the Fourth a week and a half before it arrived on the calendar. 

The number of community organizations playing active roles in Somers’ event has also changed. 

“It started with us being just one of many organizations involved,” said Gary Forbes, chairman of the Somers Lions Club’s finance committee and a 20-year veteran of July Fourth celebrations.  

But over time, participation by other groups has dwindled. Today, the lion’s share of the work, so to speak, falls to the Lions. Club volunteers organize activities, spend days setting up at Reis Park, buy food for the event and provide staffing to cook and sell it.

The Lions Club is known for its generous giving. Tapping a pool of money built up through fundraising, the Lions make fixed annual donations to a number of local charities. Beneficiaries include Friends of Karen, Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Blythedale Children’s Hospital and Vacation Camp for the Blind, Camp Sunshine, the YMCA, Somers Senior Citizens and the Scouts.

Each year, the Lions also award scholarships to four Somers High School graduates and provide immediate, small-scale assistance to residents in sudden need.

All of that requires year-round fundraising. So, while the Lions look only to break even in mounting the free-admission July Fourth observance—expenses include hiring a band, buying concession-stand food and renting buses to shuttle spectators parked at satellite locations—they also depend on their car raffle to be a major contributor to the charitable fund. 

“The car raffle is our biggest fundraiser,” Lions treasurer Phil Masi said.

The raffle looks to sell 1,000 chances at $100 a throw (three for $250). Last year, with all tickets sold, the club’s charitable fund netted roughly $50,000. This year, with Reis Park attendance estimated at 800 to 900, the Lions fell short of selling out and saw net proceeds fall to about $40,000, Masi said. 

Fireworks fans concerned about congestion at Reis Park “seem to find a place in town where they can watch more conveniently,” Forbes said. This year, for example, a gathering of 100 to 200 people watched from Primrose Elementary School, a designated satellite parking area. Such “satellite viewing,” however, depresses both attendance and revenue.

Revenue is further reduced by the celebration’s shorter hours. Once an all-day event, with a kickoff morning parade leading to an afternoon of varied activities and culminating in the night-sky pyrotechnics, the observance this year started at 3 p.m.

Despite the smaller turnout and shorter hours, the club avoided red ink on event operations—things like food and entertainment—but only through the contribution PepsiCo continues to make. The bottler, which left town two years ago, still writes a check for $5,000 and provides soda for the event.

“We don’t take a [financial] hit because Pepsi supports us,” Masi said. “They’ve been wonderful, supporting us every year...God bless ’em.”

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