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'Fireworks tourism' exploding in Northwest Indiana
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'Fireworks tourism' exploding in Northwest Indiana

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Every summer, you see giant inflatable dinosaurs, billboard after billboard with a straightjacketed man clutching a stick of dynamite, and an explosion of signs promising deals like "buy one, get six free."

As the Fourth of July draws near, cars with Illinois plates suddenly pack parking lots of retail storefronts near the state line that sit empty most of the year.

It's a blast for the Northwest Indiana economy, providing the lift of hundreds of jobs. The unemployment rate in the Gary metro area has fallen from 8.6 percent in January to 6.5 percent because of the surge in seasonal jobs at beaches, marinas, golf courses, pools and the fireworks stands that are ubiquitous along Calumet Avenue in Hammond, U.S. 30 in Dyer, and Indianapolis Boulevard in Highland.

"This increase in business increases employment through the component of unemployment known as 'seasonal unemployment,'" said Micah Pollak, an assistant professor of economics at Indiana University Northwest. "Some other examples of seasonal employment include lifeguards and landscapers in the summer and retail workers around the holidays."

A total of 100 businesses are licensed to sell fireworks in Northwest Indiana, and they're mostly concentrated near the border in Lake County, according to the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. Some stores employ a dozen or more workers.

Neighboring Illinois bans most consumer fireworks, and region store owners estimate anywhere from half to 80 percent of their business comes from the Land of Lincoln. 

"While the fireworks season can reduce local unemployment during the summer, we often see an even larger economic boom from what could be called 'fireworks tourism,'" Pollak said. "The third largest city in the United States lies only a few miles from Northwest Indiana, and Illinois is one of a handful of states that imposes strict restrictions on the types of fireworks that can be purchased and set off. The only fireworks that can be legally purchased and set off in Illinois are basic novelty fireworks like sparklers while larger fireworks, even bottle rockets, are not allowed."

Indiana's laxer law can mean a boomlet in revenue for other businesses, since visitors sometimes stop to grab a bite to eat or take advantage of the state's lower sales tax while they're here.

"This 'fireworks tourism' traffic brings in more business for fireworks stores but also for restaurants, other attractions and retail stores in the region and provides a boost in sales tax revenue," Pollak said. "Fireworks stands may get visitors from Illinois 'in the door' to spend time and money at other businesses in the region."

Americans generally can't get enough of blowing stuff up. Consumer fireworks revenue has skyrocketed from $284 million in 1998 to $695 million last year, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association. When display fireworks – the big boys used in fireworks shows – are thrown in, it's grown to a nearly $1 billion-a-year business.

Business flagged during the Great Recession, but people are again snapping up rockets and shells and roman candles, said John Panchisin, owner of Johnny Rockets in Highland.

"Fireworks are booming," he said. "They're becoming legal in more places, and they're extremely safe. They're tested and safe when not mixed with alcohol when lighting them up."

Panchisin opens his store on Indianapolis Boulevard by the Ultra Supermarket for about four to eight weeks around Independence Day. Sales are up about 10 percent this year.

Customers are also spending more on fireworks, though still not as much as they did before the recession, he said. They're now spending an average of $400 or $500, as compared to $100 during the downturn. 

"People had been buying lesser products, but no longer," he said. "Now they're looking for big and extravagant fireworks. They're definitely spending more money."

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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