Independence Day will sparkle for Fort Bragg soldiers and their families after all, thanks to a sergeant's contest-winning essay about how sequestration had snuffed out Fort Bragg's fireworks display.
Staff Sgt. Jeff Wells' description of why his community deserved a Fourth of July celebration convinced Destination America, a Discovery Communications television network, to select Fayetteville as one of two grand prize winners in a contest it launched in March. The other winner is Union Beach, N.J., a coastal town hit hard by Hurricane Sandy last fall.
"Destination America is a network that is about the United States. It really tries to capture the true grit, the hard-working, never-give-up attitude that people show," said Marc Etkind, the network's general manager. "We were thinking that it's been a tough couple of years in the economy, and for various reasons, some towns haven't been able to have fireworks at their Fourth of July celebrations."
The network teamed up with news outlet USA WEEKEND to hold a contest they called "Red, White and You." The winners would get celebrations for their towns.
For the past 30 years, Fayetteville has feted Independence Day at Fort Bragg, which hosted children's activities, music and a fireworks show above the flag on the Main Parade Field.
But Bragg officials announced in April that because of budget cuts resulting from sequestration -- which took effect earlier this year when Congress failed to agree on more deliberate federal budget reductions -- the base would not hold the event this year. The celebration, which drew about 50,000 people to post and prompted thousands more to park along approach roads to watch the fireworks, would have cost about $120,000, base officials said.
With the base cutting back on lights at athletic fields, canceling mowing contracts and trimming hours at medical clinics, Fort Bragg couldn't justify the expense.
Neighboring Fayetteville, which bills itself as the most military-friendly city in America, tried to take up the slack. It had already set its Independence Day events, including an N..C. Symphony concert and fireworks, for July 1 to avoid competing with Fort Bragg's celebration. Officials moved quickly to arrange another fireworks display for July Fourth but were looking for partners to fund the event in Festival Park downtown.
That's where Wells stepped in. His father had read about the Destination America contest and sent him the link."... I thought, just in case, I'll throw it out there and see if someone likes it," Wells said. "I certainly didn't think (my entry) was going to win."
Etkind said the contest sponsors expected to get a couple hundred entries. They got 3,500 and chose Wells' because it highlighted the bravery and dedication of America's military on the nation's most patriotic holiday.
Destination America and USA WEEKEND will pay for the fireworks, expand the children's activities and bring in the genre-crossing band The Mavericks. The 82nd Airborne Division Chorus also will perform.
Erica Brady, special events coordinator for Fayetteville-Cumberland County Parks and Recreation, said organizers are prepared to shut down as many streets as necessary to accommodate crowds.
Wells, who says he enjoyed fireworks displays with his family when he was young, is happy to have been able to help Fort Bragg soldiers get their festivities back.
"It's something they were used to having, that the community had counted on year after year, and to have it taken away was kind of a shock. So to have it back on is very exciting."