Boxes of completed sparklers are lined up to be shrink-wrapped
Modern sparklers, as we know them today, were first manufactured in America in the early 20th century, when aluminum powder — a key ingredient in their production — became commercially available. In 1922, Harry Callen of Chicago founded Acme Specialties Corp., which produced sparklers and imported fireworks from Japan, Taiwan and China. It joined about a half dozen other sparkler producers that were in existence in the United States prior to World War II.
Only three of these manufacturers managed to survive the war: New Jersey Fireworks and Elkton Sparkler Co., which were both based in Maryland, and Chicago-based Acme. Then, beginning in the 1970s, competition from China nearly leveled what remained of the floundering industry.
“[It] had a dramatic effect on U.S. manufacturers of all types of fireworks,” Conkling says. “[It] caused almost the entire industry to close or become importers.”
New Jersey Fireworks and Elkton Sparkler Co. couldn’t keep up; the former shuttered its doors and the latter turned to importing Chinese fireworks.
Around that same time, Youngstown was similarly feeling the squeeze. Founded in 1796, the city, located about 90 minutes southeast of Cleveland, had once flourished as a center of steel production after iron ore was discovered in the Mahoning Valley. When demand for steel skyrocketed during World War II, immigrants flocked to Youngstown in search of jobs. But the need for steel dropped after the war, and the city never recovered. The shutdown of the city’s steel mills, beginning in the 1970s, created a ripple effect that led to widespread layoffs and the loss of other businesses. Youngstown’s population plummeted — from a high of 170,000 in 1930 to 100,000 by 1985. (Today, only 66,000 people call it home.)
One ambitious young businessman by the name of Bruce Zoldan hadn’t given up hope. In the early 1970s, the then college student began selling fireworks around Youngstown out of the trunk of his mother’s car. In 1977, he founded the B.J. Alan Company, which purchased Acme Specialties in 1985 and relocated the acquired operations to a struggling Youngstown. Acme was renamed Diamond Sparkler Manufacturing Co., and it has operated in its current location for the last 26 years as a division of B.J. Alan’s Phantom Fireworks, which operates 55 retail store showrooms and 1,200 temporary retail locations around the country, and supplies fireworks to several national chains.
Today, Youngstown is still trying to diversify its economic base and attract new business. Despite efforts to improve the city — such as a push to clear away abandoned houses to end urban blight — area leaders no longer expect Youngstown’s previous population numbers to return. But they look to longtime businesses like Phantom Fireworks and Diamond Sparkler as an important part of the town’s recovery.
Patrick Gaughan of Youngstown State University, which is now the city’s top employer, says Phantom’s tenacity in the face of harsh economic times makes them a valuable part of the local business community. Their loyalty, he asserts, has helped residents believe that the city can bounce back.
“They’ve been here for years; they intend to stay here for years,” says Gaughan, who adds that the company is highly respected. “If [we] had a dozen of them, I’d be really happy.”
And despite the fact that Phantom’s sparkler division employs only 20 year-round employees (another 40 seasonal workers are hired during peak season), city officials stress that the company’s impact is much greater than its size.
“It is an old cliché that 80 percent of jobs come from small businesses, but it is a fact that should never be overlooked,” says Thomas M. Humphries, president and CEO of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce. “Phantom Fireworks is a small big business to us.”
Though Humphries acknowledges that Phantom’s business fluctuates because of seasonal supply and demand, he marvels at their ability to retain their workforce. “They always seem to find a way to hold on to a great core of people,” he says.
But perhaps the most surprising part of Diamond Sparkler’s story — both its persistence and its significance to the city of Youngstown — is that, as B.J. Alan Co. vice president William A. Weimer admits, they don’t even turn a profit. So why continue to produce?
The answer lies in a corporate culture that emphasizes loyalty to both its employees and its economically battered hometown. B.J. Alan executives Weimer and Zoldan are proud to run a company in the community where they grew up.
“The only way this area comes back is with businesses like us,” Weimer says.