PORTLAND — The patriotic extravaganza that is Portland’s Fourth of July fireworks display, in danger of being silenced by the economic downturn, has been rescued by a group of local businessmen.

When Jon Jennings learned that the $45,000 display was being cut from the city’s budget for the coming year, he started working the phones.

“I think it’s safe to say all of us who are involved believe the Fourth, the fireworks and particularly the civic engagement is so important to a city like Portland, there was no way we were not going to step up and make sure it happened,” said Jennings, president and general manager of the Maine Red Claws NBA Development League basketball team.

Joining in the effort to rescue the fireworks – and the regionwide celebration that rallies around them – are Jack Quirk, owner of Quirk Chevrolet, Michael Dubyak, chairman and chief executive officer of Wright Express, and Richard Connor, chief executive officer of MaineToday Media.

“The first one to suggest we get involved in saving the city’s fireworks was Executive Editor Scott Wasser,” said Connor, whose MaineToday Media publishes The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Waterville Sentinel daily newspapers, the weekly Coastal Journal in Bath and their respective Web sites.

“Serendipity struck the same day when Jon Jennings phoned to ask for our help. He and the Red Claws deserve all the credit for putting this together.”

Connor said newspapers have a special affinity for the Fourth of July.

“A newspaper stands for everything that is American, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free enterprise and just plain freedom. Fourth of July and the accompanying fireworks are about as American as you can get,” he said. “Saving this for the city and its people was just something we had to do.”

Dubyak said Wright Express welcomes the opportunity to help out when it can.

“For families it’s a tradition to celebrate, from a patriotic standpoint, the independence of our country. It’s something everybody looks forward to every year,” he said.

“It’s a wonderful tradition and if it can be sustained, we’re going to do it,” he said.

Quirk said he, like many Americans, has fond memories of the Fourth of July fireworks.

“Ever since I was a kid, my parents would take me and my four brothers to the fireworks and when I had kids, I took my kids to the fireworks,” he said. “It’s a tradition and it’s part of our heritage.”

The least we can do, Quirk said, “is celebrate our independence and freedom,” while family, friends and employees are fighting overseas. 

Jennings recalls his family setting up for the Fourth on Roosevelt Hill in Richmond, Ind., where he grew up.

“I remember laying on the ground watching the fireworks, taking sheer delight that they were scaring my little sister out of her mind,” he said, chuckling.

Jennings said the businesses will continue to work with the city to make sure the fireworks display is not in doubt again.

The fireworks and daylong festivities that precede them draw thousands of people to the Eastern Promenade. The spectacular display draws onlookers to vantage points in Falmouth and South Portland as well as Portland.

City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said it is remarkable that the private sector effort came together within a week of the budget presentation.

“We’re thrilled this was worked out,” she said.

Vanessa Ainsworth was raised on Munjoy Hill and was flabbergasted when she heard the display was being canceled.

“It’s a huge deal. It’s pretty much the only thing I have to look forward to in the summer,” Ainsworth said, as she enjoyed Saturday’s late-afternoon sunshine on the grassy Eastern Prom overlooking Casco Bay.

News that the show would go on came as a tremendous relief, she said.

“It’s not just the fireworks,” she said. “It’s like everybody comes together for one big backyard barbecue on the hill.”

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com