A potential boom in fireworks sales in Maine might be on a delayed fuse.

Beginning Jan. 1, it will be legal to sell, possess and use consumer fireworks in Maine.

But people aren’t lining up to open stores, said Richard Taylor, senior research and planning analyst with the Office of State Fire Marshal.

Taylor hasn’t received any permit applications for retail operations.

“No, I haven’t,” he said. “I kind of thought I would by now.”

In July, Gov. Paul LePage signed a bill to reverse a decades-old ban on fireworks in Maine. Individual municipalities, however, have the right to enact ordinances prohibiting the sale or use of fireworks, as has been the case in Augusta, Bangor, Portland and Winthrop. And, on Monday, town councilors in Winslow approved a 180-day moratorium on the sale of fireworks.

Municipal ordinances, however, might be overkill. According to several people in the pyrotechnics industry, the new law’s restrictions, particularly regarding building codes, might prevent stores from popping up anyway.

Getting into the game

Steve Marson, 56, has been in the pyrotechnics industry for 40 years.

In July 1971, when he was 16, Marson got his first gig when Mike Falcone, a worker for Blue Hill Pyrotechnics, asked for help at a Fourth of July fireworks show in Waterville.

Marson accepted, and worked all day digging trenches and placing mortars. That evening, Marson sat down to watch the show from a unique vantage point near the launch sites.

Marson watched as six men worked in unison to load tubes and ignite fuses in the dark, while dark smoke and shimmering sparks fell all around him.

“It was just like a war picture,” he recalled. “It was spectacular. It was a beautiful thing.”

Later that night, Falcone offered Marson an apprenticeship.

“He said, ‘How would you like to learn the art of fireworks?'” Marson recalled.

Marson said yes.

Today, Marson is the sole owner of Central Maine Pyrotechnics, based in Hallowell. The company also has a warehouse in Farmingdale.

Last year, the company engineered fireworks displays in 225 towns throughout Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

In the wake of Maine’s new law, Marson intends to expand his business to include consumer fireworks.

Marson hopes to open six retail stores. The initial investment will be about $500,000. He estimates the stores will create 20 full-time jobs and 12 seasonal positions, and will generate between $2.5 and $5 million in annual sales.

If everything goes according to plan, Marson would have stores in Brewer, Edgecomb, Manchester, Presque Isle, Searsport, Winslow and somewhere in the Lewiston and Auburn area.

Marson has a building under lease in Manchester, plans to sign a lease on in Presque Isle soon, he has found compatible sites in Winslow and Edgecomb and is scouting locations in Brewer and the Lewiston and Auburn area.

The stores in Manchester and Presque Isle could open in late January or early February, but finding suitable locations for the other stores has been difficult, he said.

“There’s not a lot of retail space available that meets the guidelines,” he said. “I travel all over the state, and it’s very difficult finding buildings that are currently empty that meet the criteria set up by the statute.”

Navigating the regulations

The chemicals used in consumer fireworks are no different from display fireworks, but the weight of chemicals — for both propulsion and display — are different.

“The stuff I’m firing (for display shows) is going up 1,000 to 1,500 feet in the air. And the (consumer) stuff goes 50 to 200 feet up,” Marson said.

Public-display fireworks can contain up to 15 pounds of chemicals, he said. Consumer fireworks, on the other hand, are limited to just more than a pound.

Despite the lesser amounts, however, consumer fireworks are still hazardous, so Maine’s law established regulations to ensure maximum safety for workers, shoppers and bystanders in the event of a fire at a retail store, Taylor said.

The law states that a retail location must be “a permanent, fixed, stand-alone building dedicated solely to the sale of consumer fireworks.”

Building codes require sprinkler systems, adequate ceiling height and more, Taylor said.

Marson said it’s tough to find suitable buildings, particularly when most urban areas are off limits because of local ordinances.

“The big cities have retail space that meets the guidelines, but guess what? They said they didn’t want it. Therefore, you have to go to surrounding communities,” he said.

Once you move into smaller communities, you run into a separate problem, he said. The buildings need sprinkler systems, which rules out the financial viability of opening stores in areas without municipal water systems.

“It’s a $100,000 expense to put in a 20,000-gallon holding tank, a fire pump and a sprinkler system. That’s before you even bring in the product,” Marson said.

Taylor, with the State Fire Marshal, said he recommends building stores from scratch to meet the codes, but Marson said that’s not economically feasible because of another aspect of the law.

“You can’t sell anything but fireworks,” he said. “It’s different in other states that allow fireworks. For example, you can go to a store in New Hampshire that sells gasoline out front. Inside the store you can buy beer and liquor, you can buy a gun, you can buy groceries and pizza and you can also buy fireworks.”

Marson estimates a new construction would cost between $200,000 and $500,000. Fireworks sales would offer a slow return on that investment, he said.

“I would not be building new buildings to do this. If I could not find buildings in these communities, I wouldn’t be doing it.”

A shifting landscape

Pauline McNeil is owner of PDK Pryro, a division of PDK Drilling and Blasting in Yarmouth. McNeil’s company provides fireworks displays for Portland Sea Dogs games and about 12 to 15 municipal fireworks shows throughout southern Maine every year.

McNeil also intends to sell consumer fireworks in Maine, but not yet.

“I’m going to wait a year and probably get into it in 2013,” she said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty right now. To open up a store with all the rules and regs that you need to do, you’re probably going to spend $150,000 per store. That’s just to open it. That’s not even to stock it.”

McNeil said she’s concerned about unsettled ordinances in municipalities.

“I think you’re going to see a lot more towns south of Augusta pass rules,” she said.

Also, McNeil said state regulations are a work in progress.

Taylor agreed.

“Yes, they are,” he said. “When the law passed, we went into a crash course. We’re still learning stuff about products and the various aspects of the codes pertaining to buildings. Everyone’s learning.”

McNeil said the shifting landscape might not prevent other larger companies from setting up shop, though.

“I’m a small business, and I don’t have the funds like Central Maine (Pyrotechnics) or Atlas (Fireworks Companies) does. They can afford to lose $150,000 if something doesn’t work out well, whereas that would really hurt someone like me,” she said. “I’m certainly in the position to do it. I have all the (federal explosives) licensing and everything. It’s just smarter for someone like me to wait.

“I think what you’re probably going to see are a lot of the big guys coming in.”

One of them is Stephen Pelkey, who is CEO and artistic director of Atlas Fireworks Companies in Jaffrey, N.H. Atlas has been operating since 1990 and has six retail stores in New Hampshire.

“We’ve been actively pursuing several different areas throughout Maine,” Pelkey said. “Of course, 60 or 70 percent of those locations have been dismissed because the local municipalities have determined that they don’t want the sale or the use of consumer fireworks.”

Pelkey said Atlas plans to open about six stores in Maine.

Eventually.

“Our anticipation is it’s going to be slow going, but we continue to evaluate locations where it would best fit the interests of our company and will be well received by the community,” he said.

Pelkey said he wouldn’t discuss precise locations for stores yet, but said Atlas is eyeing the Interstate 95 corridor, the Sebago Lake area and towns surrounding Bangor.

“We’re hoping to open at least one store by mid-to-late spring,” he said. “Right now we’re just evaluating communities.”

Atlas has no interest in operating near the New Hampshire border, he said.

“You have taxes being imposed in Maine,” Pelkey said. “We’re looking at locations that are at least 15 to 20 miles off the border, far enough where people wouldn’t feel compelled to travel to New Hampshire to save on sales taxes.”

Taylor, who helped work on the bill to legalize fireworks, said he’s not sure what the future holds.

“There will be some fireworks retailers in Maine,” he said. “I don’t know how many.”

Ben McCanna — 861-9239

[email protected]

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.