Cripple Creek Independence Celebration Ignites Political Fireworks

City opts to return to tradition in 2018 with award-winning display

~ by Rick Langenberg ~

By all accounts, Cripple Creek easily won the championship bout for the region’s premiere fireworks celebration by showcasing a nearly 30-minute show that trounced  Independence Day displays in many locales down the Pass.

There was no question about this overwhelming victory, with such nearby communities as Woodland Park waving the white surrender flag for professional, pyrotechnical effects. 

In addition, the southern Teller community scored record crowds, according to preliminary estimates, and easily impressed visitors with a dazzling display done by a top-rate Denver-based company that has handled fireworks shows outside the Washington Memorial in Washington D.C. “We blew it out of the park with this (the Cripple Creek fireworks celebration). It was a really great show,” boasted Steve Kitzman, the marketing and special events director for the city of Cripple Creek. “We had a lot new people who got exposed to the best fireworks show in southern Colorado.”  

However, the timing of the display has ignited a mini-fireworks show in the political and business arena that caught the attention of elected leaders last week.  Following a slight debate at the July 5 council meeting, town leaders have issued a firm verdict:  For next year, Cripple Creek will return to tradition and hold its July 4th celebration on July 4th, end of story.  

During last week’s regular meeting, John Freeman, a local business owner, heavily criticized the city’s decision to hold its annual show on Saturday, July 1, as part of a way to accommodate gamblers and 24/7 weekend party-goers.  As a former veteran, he was bothered by this decision, saying it kills an important American and local tradition. “We should have it on July 4th,” said Freeman, the owner of Cripple Creek Candy & Variety store. 

Moreover, he questioned the business move, citing Saturday as a day that typically doesn’t need that much of an extra marketing boost. On the other hand, Tuesday, the actual July 4th date, could have used a little fireworks push, noted Freeman.  

He contended that he and other shop owners spent much time on Tuesday apologizing to visitors, who came to town to see the town’s fireworks display, typically done on the actual July 4 date. According to the business owner, his shop shut down early that day due to a bombardment of visitor complaints and virtually little commerce. “There was no reason to stay open,” added the business owner, who noted that other Cripple Creek merchants experienced the same predicament.  

Several council members joined the chorus of skeptics, who weren’t quite ready to toast margaritas, following the July 1 fireworks performance. Councilman Milford Ashworth, who works at a local museum, cited many complaints from tourists who came to town on Tuesday to view the Independence Day fireworks. Instead, they were sent down to Woodland Park and Manitou Springs. “There were families that were disappointed,” said Ashworth.

Mayor Pro Tem Steve Zoellner went further, criticizing the move itself to host Independence Day on a vastly different date without council input.” I am very irritated it was not presented to the council,” said Zoellner, who clearly sympathized with Freeman’s sentiments and gave the marketing department a slight scolding. “The council was not informed of the change.”

If he had his druthers, the mayor pro tem indicated he would have voted for patriotic tradition, opting for the July 4th date. He reassured the business owner that this change in the city’s Independence Day celebration didn’t come from the city council. 

Divided opinions on the change

In recent weeks, some locals have complained about the move, citing the change of date as a clash with age-old Cripple Creek Independence Day traditions. They also say that many out-of-town visitors made plans one year in advance in anticipation of the town’s stellar fireworks show, which in recent years have commanded much attention. “Mr. (Steve) Kitzman needs to learn about Cripple Creek traditions,” said one long-time resident and Two Mile High Club veteran. “We have always celebrated July 4th on July 4th.”

“It was an experiment,” said Mayor Bruce Brown, in describing the change this year, at last week’s council meeting. With Independence Day occurring on a Tuesday, he noted that city officials believed that Saturday night would be an ideal time for the professional display. Plus, for many visitors and workers across the state and country, Saturday marked the beginning of a four-day, Independence Day weekend.

The change in times for the show in Cripple Creek also had their share of supporters.

“It wasn’t all negative comments,” said City Administrator Ray DuBois, who cited the July 1 show and celebration as a boom day and night for casinos and many other businesses. Councilman Chris Hazlett, the owner of Ralf’s Breakroom, described that July 1, Saturday’s fireworks celebration as a day that hit an all-time record for his business since he ran the popular bar and eatery.

Although opinions widely varied on the timing of the show, no one debated the fact that the city put on one heck of a fireworks celebration. “We had a great show,” admitted Freeman. “I have no problem with that.”

According to Kitzman, the city had record-breaking crowds, with the entire Cripple Creek Heritage Center parking lot filled with cars from fireworks viewers. The marketing director said he received many positive comments from gaming operators.

He said the city tried the earlier date this year to take advantage of the Saturday crowds and to give the city an “exclusive” opportunity for showcasing their top-rate display that many out-town-visitors aren’t aware of. No other competing towns opted to do their fireworks’ display on Saturday night.

As for publicizing the change, the marketing director said officials notified the public as early as March, and heavily promoted the change through a bombardment of print and television ads, and on social media.

 He conceded that the date change has sparked some complaints, but admits any event in Cripple Creek always produces some level of debate. “People either thought it (the change for the July 4th fireworks show) was the greatest thing in the world, or absolutely hated it,” quipped Kitzman.

And the marketing chief believes that there were definitely more people who supported the approach this year due to the timing of the holiday. 

But fret not, for next year Kitzman and the city’s staff plan to revert back to tradition, with initial plans calling for the 2018 show to occur on Wednesday, July 4. Better yet, no more pyrotechnical blowouts are projected at city hall, at least regarding Independence Day displays.