Flocking to fireworks

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 29, 2003

The display on the cash register beamed $106.38. Vincente Torres pulled out his money, paid the cashier and walked away with a box full of sparklers, noise makers and showering fountains. It looked like a small arsenal, but none of the fireworks were the exploding or flying kind.

But for Torres, it’s not about shooting up the sky. It’s about entertaining his kids.

&uot;Last year, we didn’t have any fireworks and my kids wanted me to get some for this year,&uot; said Torres, of Bricelyn. &uot;So this year I’ll invite the neighborhood to come watch.&uot;

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Torres was buying fireworks in the parking lot in front of Northbridge Mall in Albert Lea, in one of the two tents in front of that mall. In parking lots around the city, and the state, tents are popping up in great numbers.

Minnesota legalized the sale of some fireworks in 2002 for the first time since 1941. The sales are limited to those that don’t explode or shoot high into the air.

Last year’s law took effect just two months before the Fourth of July, leaving distributors little time to push their products. This year, the distributors have flocked to the state.

Eric Robbins, the Minnesota representative for Alabama’s TNT Fireworks company, which has set up many tents throughout the state, says this year won’t have any shortage of hype, and he expects the war with Iraq will only fuel public appetite for patriotic displays.

One of TNT’s tents is set up at Northbridge Mall. James Koss and Lisa Carew are running the tent to raise money for their church group, Outreach for the Inner City, a ministry group which, they said, fights inner-city problems such as teen pregnancy, homelessness and drug use.

&uot;We’ve had a lot of customers so far,&uot; Carew said. &uot;Let’s hope they keep coming.&uot;

The pair is based out of Minneapolis, but through TNT, which will give proceeds to non-profit groups if the groups run the tents, the two ended up in Albert Lea.

They are not alone. In the second summer since Minnesota legalized some fireworks, church

groups and youth ministries are poised to be among the most enthusiastic and highest-volume sellers of the souped-up sparklers.

At least 65 tents around the state will be run by religious-based groups, and they’ll take home 20 percent of the profits.

TNT, one of the largest distributors in the country, has aggressively recruited nonprofit groups to sell its products in the state. They’ll be among nearly 5,000 nonprofits that sell the company’s products from sites nationwide.

Robbins said church groups are operating most of the tents the company has set up throughout the state in part because they tend to be able to find dedicated young people willing to staff or guard the tents 24 hours a day in the hottest days of summer.

But the church-heavy focus is also largely because Robbins is a pastor for a Washington

state-based Assemblies of God church. He says he’s relied on a network of youth pastors and Pentecostal churches to sell the company’s product.

&uot;It’s a great way to grow a church,&uot; says Robbins. &uot;I encourage them: Don’t make this a fund-raiser. If you open up, you’re going to sell, but if you see this as an outreach to your community you will have a far greater impact.&uot;

But not all tents are non-profits.

On the other side of the Northbridge parking lot is a much different story, but the same product.

Cody Waggener and Bruce Brown, both of Tennessee, are working a fireworks stand as a summer job for Fireworks World.

The two drove up to Albert Lea on the June 20, and are here for two weeks selling fireworks.

Brown said

the company decided to start selling fireworks in Minnesota this year.

&uot;Up here the prices are higher, so I imagine that’s why they wanted us here,&uot; Brown said.

The two take turns sleeping in the tent each night, guarding the fireworks.

But the job is worthwhile. The two said they get paid well, and have been working on their sales techniques.

&uot;We have 15 tents in the state,&uot; Waggener said. &uot;When we opened up shop we were in last place. Now we’ve moved into the top ten.&uot;

The Associated Press contributed to this report.