Fireworks stands ready to light up new year

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER --  Jerry Matherne mans Frank's Fireworks stand on the Westbank Expressway in Gretna Wednesday. Fireworks are legal in Gretna, but many customers who live in places where fireworks are banned visit Frank's to stock up on their favorite pyrotechnics.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Jerry Matherne mans Frank's Fireworks stand on the Westbank Expressway in Gretna Wednesday. Fireworks are legal in Gretna, but many customers who live in places where fireworks are banned visit Frank's to stock up on their favorite pyrotechnics.

Gretna Mayor Ronnie Harris said that one of his favorite things to do on New Year’s Eve is to ride along the elevated expressway and watch how fireworks going off in his city light up the sky at the stroke of midnight.

He said he’s been told by people who visit New Orleans for the holiday that they look toward the river and “are amazed at the fireworks in the city of Gretna,’’ something he describes as an “amazing display of pyrotechnics.’’

Fireworks are illegal in much of the metro New Orleans area. But in Gretna, Jean Lafitte, unincorporated St. Tammany Parish and St. Bernard, St. John the Baptist and Plaquemines parishes, they are legal to sell and use.

For Gretna, fireworks is “almost like a cottage industry,’’ said the mayor, boasting of families who have operated stands for years.

The impact for Gretna goes well beyond the sales tax revenue the twice-yearly industry brings, he said. It provides employment and seasonal work that’s especially helpful for high school students, he said. He calls fireworks a job creator.

That’s certainly the case for areas where fireworks can be sold, including unincorporated St. Tammany Parish. Fireworks stands started springing up on Gause Boulevard West, a well-traveled thoroughfare leading to North Shore Square Mall in Slidell in mid-December.

Caroline Bain, a college student who attends Ole Miss, was working a May Brothers fireworks stand near the mall. She does so twice a year, before Independence Day and before New Year’s — and plans to continue doing so when she starts her career as an elementary school teacher after graduation.

Gerald Houston, who was manning the stand with Bain, said he and his wife sell fireworks in addition to their full-time jobs to bring in extra money.

The stand was bereft of customers Saturday morning, as Bain and Gerald Houston were on duty, but that’s normal, the pair said.

“Most everyone waits until the last day,’’ Bain said. “The days before, people are stopping by,’’ she said, checking prices. “The 30th and 31st, we do most all of our business.’’

Houston and Bain said most of the customers at the stand where they work are locals, families coming in to buy sparklers, snap-pops and more elaborate items to ring in the new year. New Orleanians tend to buy at locations near Interstate 10, closer to Lake Pontchartrain, she said.

Fireworks merchants don’t know, of course, whether their customers plan to set off their pyrotechnics where it’s legal to do so or not. Harris said it’s clear from visual evidence that plenty of what is sold in Gretna goes off in Gretna.

But plenty of the fireworks sold are discharged in places where they are not allowed, and aggressive enforcement is not the norm.

In Slidell, for example, detective Daniel Seuzeneau said the Police Department will respond to complaint calls about fireworks being discharged. In most cases, he said, police will issue a warning the first time.

But if officers get called out to the same place again, fireworks scofflaws can expect to receive a misdemeanor summons to appear in Slidell City Court. And, of course, a first call can result in police action depending on what else is going on.

Harris readily acknowledged that not everyone is a fan of fireworks, but he said there’s never been a public clamor to make them illegal in Gretna. But he doesn’t think that Gretna has experienced a rash of fires or injuries from fireworks.

“We do urge people to use them in a safe manner,’’ he said.