As the season’s first snowflakes fell to the ground, Clayton launched fireworks into the sky.
The town didn’t confuse Jan. 4 with July 4; instead, it performed a test run for this summer’s fireworks show.
Mortars burst in blues and reds, but because of new launch restrictions, they didn’t travel as high as in years past. Town leaders hope to retain the spirit of the three-decade-old tradition, but they think a culture change is imminent.
Clayton’s fireworks show really changed last February, when the Town Council approved the 330-home ParkView neighborhood on the north side of town.
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The subdivision abuts the back side of Municipal Park, long home to Clayton’s July 4 celebration, affecting where fireworks can launch and how high they can fly. Construction is well underway in the development, and Planning Director David DeYoung expects occupancy permits to begin coming in within a month or two, well ahead of the July 4 holiday.
The homes shifted where Clayton could launch its rockets and cut down on the size of the shells it could use. Parks and Recreation Director Larry Bailey said 800-foot fliers are out if Clayton keeps its show at Municipal Park, replaced by smaller rockets capable of 400 or 600 feet in height.
“In the past, we had a big wooded tract that didn’t have any people or structures,” Bailey said. “Our area has been diminished, but I feel like we can do a lot more of the smaller shells than we used to do of the larger ones. We can still have the same intensity.”
Clayton inadvertently picked the coldest day so far this year for its test, as town staff and council members spread across downtown to see if they could see the lower-flying fireworks from many of the popular vantage points. The reactions were lukewarm.
“Historically, the fireworks show brings in a lot of people to Clayton – it’s always fantastic, and the fireworks can be seen from a half-mile to a mile away,” Mayor Jody McLeod said. “The way growth is going in and around the Civitan Club, we’re not going to be able to have as massive of a show.”
McLeod said it was frustrating to develop a regional reputation for an event and now run the risk of staging something underwhelming.
Councilman Bob Satterfield hoped a solution was on the way. “If that’s about all we can do, I don’t know that it’s worth our money,” he said. “If you’re not there at the park, you’re not going to see a whole lot.”
Bailey said that was also one of his takeaways from the test. The launch point moved from a lower football field to a lacrosse field on the east side of the park. Some smaller fireworks barely cleared the Civitan Building, but others climbed a few hundred feet.
“You can see the shells, but we’re not sure yet how far away you can see them,” Bailey said. “We’ll encourage people to come to the park.”
If Municipal Park is the best, if only place in town to see the show, Bailey said his next challenge is working out parking logistics. Early ideas are setting up parking areas nearby and asking people to walk to the park.
“Clayton has been doing a fireworks show now for 30 years,” Bailey said. “This [test] was a learning experience for us, just seeing what works and what doesn’t. I feel like we can do a lot more smaller shells than the number of larger shells we used to do and have the same intensity.”
Councilman Jason Thompson said his expectations were low but that the test convinced him the show would be worth the effort.
“I was impressed – more than I thought I’d be,” Thompson said. “The obvious drawback is there’s not a lot of height.”
Clayton’s fireworks show, Thompson said, encompasses the whole town, with families returning to their favorite viewing spots year after year. He fears that loss could change the event but could also create something more intimate.
“Some people come year after year, they’ve found a good vantage point, and they want to keep it,” Thompson said. “Those are the ones I’m worried about. I think what’s going to change is more people will have to come to the park, but I’d love for everyone to see it there, the town in the same place. It’s definitely going to be a culture change.”
During the test, Clayton’s information department shot video from around the town, including Town Square and Horne Park, to determine if the show could be seen from popular vantage points. The council and Bailey will discuss firework options during the Tuesday, Jan. 18, meeting.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson