A bicycle float pauses during Wrangell’s Fourth of July parade in 2021.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

Wrangell’s small-town Fourth of July celebrations are a rural America masterpiece, with canoe races, logging competitions, and a fireworks show to put much larger cities to shame. It’s a costly event, and recently, it hasn’t been breaking even. Event organizers are looking at parade registration fees and renting spaces for booths as ways to make ends meet. 

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Wrangell’s Chamber of Commerce starts planning Fourth of July celebrations on July 5 of the previous year. But as the confetti settled after 2022’s week of Independence Day events, the Chamber realized it had a major issue. 

“We couldn’t have a year like last year and stay solvent,” says Bill Burr, president of the Chamber of Commerce’s volunteer board. He’s also the superintendent of Wrangell’s school district. 

“The biggest outflow of money is the Fourth of July, which is a pretty big community event, and we want that to continue. ” Burr explains, “But we couldn’t have another year [like last year], we don’t have reserves to fall back on at this point.”

The Chamber’s reserves sit at around $34,000, just half of the lowest range it usually relies on.

Wrangell’s Fourth of July hasn’t historically been a money-maker for the Chamber, but in years past, it broke even or came close. That hasn’t been the case recently, especially last year, says Chamber executive director Brittani Robbins. 

“I noticed that we were losing or expending a lot of our finances during the run of the royalty race last year,” Robbins says. “That’s when I started to notice that we were not bringing in as much as we were putting out.”

The royalty race is the big funding mechanism for the Chamber in the lead-up to the Fourth of July. That’s where community members – usually high schoolers looking to make money for college – sell raffle tickets and fundraise via food booths, car washes and carnivals during a whirlwind month. It used to be more of a true race, with multiple candidates competing to sell the most tickets and take the crown. That hasn’t held true the last few years, meaning less money coming in to the Chamber to supplement the Fourth of July.

Robbins says the Chamber pays for wages and supplies during the royalty race, which had one candidate last year, and that cost came out to almost $83,000. But ticket sales fell over $25,000 short of costs (and brought in just over $56,000). 

The royalty competition is only the start of Independence Day expenditures. The Chamber also pays for special insurance for the downtown corridor during the celebrations, and that insurance has almost doubled in cost in the last couple of years from $1,700 in 2021 to $3,200 in 2022. Robbins says she expects that to increase again dramatically this year. And cash prizes for dozens of events came out of its coffers. 

“Every single 50-cent piece to hundred-dollar bill that goes out between the first and the fourth was furnished by the Chamber,” Robbins says. 

And other supplies, hundreds of eggs for the egg toss, and a huge fireworks show don’t come cheap. Burr says last year’s fireworks cost $11,000. Between cash prizes, supplies and events, he says the 4th of July overall cost well over $100,000. 

Burr adds: “And that doesn’t include a lot of the work and the setup: hours and time by members of the Chamber and volunteers. So there’s even more that goes into it that just can’t be calculated. But sticker price alone is six figures.”

For years, Robbins says the Chamber’s backup source of income to pad the Fourth of July was pull tabs sales at the bars around town: “We were really, really heavily relying on those pull tabs,” she says.

But with inflation soaring and local utility rates set to rise as well, Robbins says pull tabs sales have plummeted. 

“With the economic change, even my agent through the state is calling and being like, ‘Why aren’t you buying more pull tabs?’” she relates. “Well, I would love to, but no one’s buying them from me. So that’s when I reached out to Bill and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem. And we need to think about what to do.’”

So there are some changes coming to this year’s Fourth of July in Wrangell. Some are small, like a $5 registration fee for the parade. There may be less subcategories for prizes. “The parade was $1,000 in prizes alone,” Robbins notes.

The biggest change will be space and supply rentals from the Chamber. Robbins says that’s not to make the Chamber money – it’ll just help cover the expenses for things like the special downtown insurance. 

“If you just want to be downtown between the barricades within city property, then there’s a $25 fee,” Robbins explains. “Fifty ($50) if you’re going to use our equipment – so our chairs, tables and pop-ups. One hundred ($100) if you’re going to be inside one of the prefabricated pavilion booths. If you’re just under the pavilion cover, that comes back to the $25, $50. It’s just those prefabricated ones [that will be $100], as the Chamber did pay to build that structure, and we do lease the property from the property owner.”

Will it change the vibe of Wrangell’s small-town Independence Day? 

“I think the minimal charges that we have, with good reason, may make a difference,” Burr says. “Of course it is going to affect things. It’s a change and change is sometimes difficult. But we’re doing it more out of necessity than any other reason. We want to provide all of the services that the Chamber is known for. But we can’t do that without help. And we’re hoping that we can get into a financial footing where we can provide everything that we’ve had in the past.”

Robbins says there have been a few gripes about the changes – after all, Wrangell is a town of traditions. 

“I mean, I have memories growing up at my house up on the top of the hill, hearing from downtown: ‘Toss your eggs now!’” Robbins says, mimicking the sound of the announcement through a megaphone. 

But there’s also been a huge outpouring of support. Almost every event for the coming Fourth of July has been sponsored at prices from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. The new sponsorships will allow most competitions to keep some form of cash prizes for winners. For many of the events, the same volunteers keep coming out year after year to organize and run the highlight events of the festival. 

Beyond the Fourth of July, the Chamber is looking for other ways to cut costs while still fulfilling its mission of supporting Wrangell’s businesses and economy. 

The Chamber sponsors and facilitates events throughout the year, from Tax-Free days to incentivise shopping locally to the holiday tree lighting and King Salmon Derby. Not all of those make money. 

“Having our work going into and running programs that don’t bring anything in – in actual revenue back, puts that at risk,” Burr explains, “And we want to offer as much as we possibly can. But we can’t do that and run a negative balance.”

Another finance-related issue that’s plagued the Chamber in recent years is that at some point in the past, it was classified as a 501(c)4, a nonprofit designation for social welfare organizations. 

Robbins says it should be a 501(c)6, the typical designation for Chambers of Commerce. She says she has no idea how or when the change happened, but explains that makes it tough for the Chamber to obtain grants or other outside funding. Right now, the main sources of funding for the Chamber are membership dues, pull tabs and a yearly donation from the borough government. 

Burr says the Chamber board is looking at a number of different ways to bring in revenue: “Even to break even is a goal that we have,” he says with a laugh. “It’s not for the Chamber of Commerce to build a war chest of riches. But it does need to provide the service that our members are asking for, and to help the community as a whole, which I think the Chamber has done for a long time with smiles on their faces. But we’re reaching a point where if we can’t provide services, then we’re gonna have to cut back and there will be less things that the Chamber can do themselves, which will impact our members too. We don’t want to get there. We have a little breathing room, but we do have to make some changes.”

He says the Chamber is looking at its full events calendar and weighing community importance and financial impacts. 

Robbins and Burr both also say they hope that their openness about the Chamber’s struggles might prompt Wrangell residents to keep thinking of ways to volunteer and help support events. That includes providing feedback or new ideas of how to fundraise or better support Wrangell’s business community. The Chamber’s seven-member board and two-person office can only do so much on their own, Burr says. 

“When we’re doing large community events, we really need the community to help,” Burr says. In the past, that’s been a lot of volunteering. In tight financial times, that might mean more finance-focused solutions and ideas. “There are a small number of the Chamber board. And there are a lot of people in the community that benefit from the actions the Chamber does,” he adds.

He also says that the Chamber is hoping to come to the Borough Assembly with a plan for additional financial support for the Fourth of July. (Robbins will have to sit out of making decisions on that front – she sits on the Borough Assembly so will declare a conflict of interest.) 

Wrangell’s Borough Assembly already allocates money to the Chamber each year, which started as a way to pay for fireworks. Last year the Assembly increased its donation to the Chamber from $23,000 to $27,000. 

“Other communities in Southeast do support the Chamber to some extent, especially to keep them afloat in large community events. So we are looking for community support in helping the Chamber continue doing bigger items for the community itself,” Burr adds. 

Robbins says any changes to Chamber events are with the goal of doing the best to support the community while being an example of good business practices. 

“What makes Wrangell special is what we can do as a community,” Robbins says. “It is the fact that we have a Fourth of July like no other or that we have these special events where people can get dressed up or go out and do these fun things that you can’t do in the larger communities, where it’s not safe or they don’t have the feeling of family where they want to get together with their community. I don’t want any of that to go away. But down the line, if we can’t make changes, then something’s going to go away.”

So the Chamber is doing everything it can to make those changes, whether at the Fourth of July or its other events throughout the year. 

Even if its structure is a little different, Robbins assures that Wrangell’s Fourth of July will go on. The eggs will crack on Front Street, the fireworks will sparkle above town, and a Wrangellite will be crowned Fourth of July royalty. 

She says they’ve already got one candidate for this year’s race approved by the Chamber and ready to go, but they’re waiting to make an official announcement until the May 1 deadline for royalty signups, in case any others want to throw their hat in the ring to compete for the Fourth of July crown.

Get in touch with KSTK at news@kstk.org or (907) 874-2345.