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Nebraska firework sellers scramble for new business in Iowa

June 25, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska fireworks retailers are scrambling to set up shop in Iowa because it lifted its ban last month and are brushing aside concerns that the new policy could hurt sales at their existing shops along the border.

Retailers said they’re excited to expand into the new market after former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad signed a law last month to legalize bottle rockets, Roman candles and other consumer fireworks. Iowa banned fireworks in the 1930s in response to fires that caused widespread damage.

Iowans have traditionally bought fireworks in neighboring states that allow them — primarily in Missouri, which offers year-round sales, but also in the Omaha area and South Sioux City, Nebraska, which lets retailers sell them for several days around July 4.

Unlike Missouri’s shops in small, isolated border towns that rely on Iowa customers, though, Nebraska retailers say they’re already located in cities large enough to support their businesses. Many are part of regional chains that set up tents in multiple states.

“We’re pretty excited about the opportunities in Iowa,” said Vince Bellino, manager at the Papillion-based Bellino Fireworks. “It’s a growth market for us. It’s going to affect some of our Nebraska business, but not much.”

Bellino said 10 to 15 percent of his Omaha-area business comes from Iowa, but the company now plans to open temporary stands in Council Bluffs, Sioux City and Clarinda near Iowa’s western border.

Dan Williams, owner of Wild Willy’s Fireworks in Springfield, Nebraska, opened five new stands in western and central Iowa and expects to erect more in the future.

Williams said he and others in the industry had to hurry because the law passed just a month before sales were allowed to begin. Iowa retailers can now sell consumer fireworks out of temporary structures from June 13 through July 8 each year, which is a much bigger window than Nebraska’s.

“The potential there is huge,” Williams said.

Kirk Myers, owner of the Crete, Nebraska-based Kracklin’ Kirks Fireworks, said Iowa’s decision to allow fireworks should help the whole industry in the region.

Myers said he believes many potential Iowa customers were reluctant to buy even out-of-state fireworks because they didn’t want to violate the state’s ban.

“I’m not seeing a lot of negatives,” said Myers, who owns stores throughout central and eastern Nebraska. “The overall pie is going to get considerably bigger for everyone now that it’s legal.”

Missouri fireworks retailers on the Iowa border say it’s too early to know how the new policy will affect their businesses. Many people assume the stores will lose business, but some owners note that Missouri offers cheaper prices for a variety of goods and has fewer restrictions on fireworks sales than many local governments in Iowa.

Others say they’ve built a loyal customer base. Many customers buy fireworks because they’re on vacation and happen to be passing through Missouri, said Rob Small, the owner of Rob’s Fireworks in Lancaster, Missouri, about 5 miles (8 kilometers) south of the Iowa border.

Small said he has focused heavily on customer service in his 25 years in the business, offering custom-made specialty packages that many other stores don’t and housing his supply in a dehumidified brick-and-mortar building to keep it dry.

Iowa’s decision could create challenges for Missouri retailers, he said, but “it’s something I think we can deal with and live through.”

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

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