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Fewer customers visit fireworks booths

Denise Pursley and Kristi Hamel sat underneath a blue plastic canopy next to the Merced Bears Wrestling Club's fireworks booth Wednesday, waiting for customers to arrive at any moment.

Although a few people stopped by the booth, the flow of customer traffic was anything but generous. And since Pursley and Hamel only had three sales the previous day -- they are admittedly a little concerned.

With high gas prices and a downturn in the economy, some nonprofit groups that depend on fireworks sales, like the Merced Bears Wrestling Club, say they have already noticed fewer buyers this year.

Since Sunday, their fireworks booth has raised $500 -- only 18 percent of what the group raised last year.

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"If we don't make money, how are we supposed to support those kids?" Hamel wondered. "Every little bit helps."

Complicating the situation, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week urged the public to avoid buying fireworks this year, citing the rash of wildfires statewide. With the Fourth of July weekend approaching, however, most nonprofits are hoping that customers will soon open their wallets.

Mike Smith, chairman of the Merced High School's Marching 100, estimated that fireworks sales are down about 30 percent this year -- a decrease he attributes to the economic downturn.

Last year, his group made more than $20,000, much of which pays for travel expenses, uniform maintenance and other costs. Money from fireworks sales account for between 25 and 35 percent of the marching band's budget.

Without the fireworks sales, Smith said the impact would be significant.

"We rely on revenue to pay for our fall competitive season," Smith said. "We would like to be able to at least match what what we did last year. We would be very pleased if that happens."

Other groups are taking a wait-and-see approach to fireworks sales -- they admit that today and Friday will be the days that determine how well they do.

Tami Jimenez, a parent with the Golden Valley High School Cardinal Regime marching band, said a steady stream of parents have been buying fireworks at the band's booth during the past few days.

Still, Jimenez said it's still too early to tell whether they will surpass the nearly $15,000 in fireworks sales last year.

The marching band depends partly on fireworks sales to send 150 students to the 2009 Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year's Day. Still, with less state funds supporting extracurricular programs like the marching band, the sales from fireworks become even more important.

Jimenez said the band will need to raise $100,000 more this year, compared to previous years, to cover all of its expenses.

"The next few days are going to make us or break us," she said.

Bill Martin, principal of Merced Christian School, said fireworks sales "are not doing any better or any worse" than last year, which he attributes to a loyal customer base.

The fireworks funds at his school benefit a science camp for students, a trip to Washington, D.C., and other activities.

Still, he's glad the governor's public plea was only a suggestion -- as opposed to an outright ban.

"If that would have happened, our kids would suffer," Martin said.

Although few believe the governor's plea is the sole reason for declining sales, some members of nonprofits, like Pursley, do not believe his words helped.

"I'm sure he never had to do a fundraiser for his kids," Pursely said. "If you want to be able to keep kids involved, you have to be able to fund their events."

But many parents, like Lisa Parga-Curtin, said they are not changing their Fourth of July plans.

Clint, her 10-year-old son, earned his fireworks this year by doing yard work and getting excellent grades in school.

"So this was his dad's way of rewarding him," Parga-Curtin said.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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