Fayette County

Lexington’s 4th of July fireworks were a dud. Two reports say what went wrong.

A seven-page internal city report recommends moving Lexington’s July 4th fireworks display back to the University of Kentucky Arboretum or to another location after widespread public criticism of last year’s lackluster fireworks display from the Lexington Financial Center roof.

Different fireworks shells had to be used because they were shot from a roof top, resulting in a show that was not as big or impressive, the seven-page report found.

The Downtown Lexington Partnership, a downtown nonprofit, has overseen the city’s July 4th festivities and other events since 2011 when the city asked a predecessor of the Downtown Lexington Partnership to take over events because of a budget shortfall.

City officials talked to Zambelli, the fireworks vendor, police, fire and parks department officials.

The fireworks cost $20,000, which was an increase from previous years.

Former Mayor Jim Gray called for the internal review of the fireworks show after being overwhelmed with critical feedback about the rooftop display.

“With the decision by the DLP to do the show from the roof of the Lexington Financial Center, the show was the top level for what could be done on top of the building,” the report said. “It was as big as show as possible from the roof.”

In addition, the report recommended that city officials should have final approval of the fireworks show “to make sure that the production is up to a standard Lexington citizens enjoy.”

The report also called for better coordination and event management by the Downtown Lexington Partnership. The city is not being adequately reimbursed by the partnership for city services provided during the event, the report found, noting that the city had to increase fire and police staffing for the rooftop launch.

The Downtown Lexington Partnership, in a separate report issued to the city, said they wanted to move the fireworks back downtown from the arboretum in 2018 because the show generated so much money for downtown businesses. It was moved to the arboretum in 2016 after the city and RJ Corman, which owned property where the fireworks were launched for years, got into a disagreement and Corman told the Downtown Lexington Partnership they could not use the site anymore.

The partnership said in its report that its fireworks vendor had assured them the rooftop launch would work.

View of downtown Lexington during the city’s Fourth of July fireworks as seen from the roof of the Connie Griffith Tower. Silas Walker Herald-Leader

“Zambelli indicated that it would be feasible and recommended that we increase the firework budget to $20,000 and that we use a close proximity fireworks,” the partnership’s report said. “They indicated they had launched close proximity fireworks many times off buildings in other cities. They cautioned that it would not be like other Fourth of July displays you might expect but would provide ‘amazing effects.’”

Zambelli told Lexington fire officials something different, according to the city’s report: “They had expressed initial concern about shooting the fireworks off the top of the Lexington Financial Center because of the quality of the show they would be able to provide. Additionally, the fireworks company suggested the High Street parking lot at Lexington Center (Rupp Arena) as a possible alternative location downtown.”

The two reports on the July 4th fireworks display came up during a Lexington council committee meeting Tuesday.

Terry Sweeney, president and CEO of the Downtown Lexington Partnership, told the General Government and Social Services Committee that he has not yet had a chance to meet with Mayor Linda Gorton to discuss moving the fireworks display.

“My recollection is we forwarded the report to the council and (former Mayor Jim Gray) and heard no response,” Sweeney told the council. “We are looking at meeting with the new administration.”

Sweeney said he had not seen the city’s internal report.

Laura Farnsworth, the senior event coordinator for the partnership, said “we have some ideas for a couple different locations.”

Farnsworth did not identify those locations.

The partnership’s report also blamed Gray for the Lexington Financial Center location. The partnership said fire and public safety officials, which sign off on firework launches, had called them and told them they wouldn’t approve the rooftop launch. “Because the mayor had previously voiced his support for this location at informal networking events, DLP apprised the mayor. He said he would look into it. Shortly thereafter, DLP was informed by the city of Lexington that we could go ahead with utilizing the Lexington Financial Center.”

Gray said Wednesday it was Sweeney who pushed for the rooftop launch of the fireworks, not him.

“Terry Sweeney assured me he had the experience in Indiana with rooftop fireworks on several buildings and they were great shows,” Gray said. “Mayors rely on advice like this to help make decisions. Clearly, he was mistaken in his judgment. I ordered the review because I believe the city deserves the best going forward.”

Tyler Scott, chief of staff for Gorton, said city officials have not spoken to Downtown Lexington Partnership staff yet about moving the fireworks.

“Terry has not asked to meet with the mayor. He has had introductory meetings with Heather Lyons, our Director of Arts and Cultural Affairs,” Scott said. “We share the council’s desire to ensure that we have strong events downtown that are attractive to families, young professionals, seniors ... everyone. That’s very important. We want to do what’s best for all of our citizens.”

Beth Musgrave has covered government and politics for the Herald-Leader for more than a decade. A graduate of Northwestern University, she has worked as a reporter in Kentucky, Indiana, Mississippi, Illinois and Washington D.C.