By Taylor Telford

The Washington Post

The escalating trade clash between the United States and China has sent thousands of U.S. companies scrambling to determine whether they can import goods from other countries to escape higher tariffs. But when President Donald Trump threatened to tag large penalties on $300 billion in Chinese imports earlier this month, a sense of panic settled over the fireworks industry. It had nowhere else to go.

“It’s virtually impossible for our product to be made anywhere else but in China,” said Bruce Zoldan, the chief executive of Phantom Fireworks in Youngstown, Ohio. “If these tariffs happen, it’ll be the greatest threat to our industry.”

Zoldan met with White House officials on Wednesday to press his case, and he is working on a formal request to be delivered next month that he hopes would exempt the fireworks industry from the penalties. A final decision by the White House could come in late June, in the midst of the fireworks industry’s busiest period.

After several months of negotiations between the White House and Beijing that left many believing a truce was within reach, a messy unraveling has left many business executives wondering how to avoid collateral damage.

Trump’s showdown with Beijing has nothing to do with fireworks, but they have nonetheless been brought into the fray of the trade war and its headline issues: trade imbalances, government subsidies, intellectual property and global economic health. And while Trump has repeatedly suggested that companies can sidestep the tariffs by moving manufacturing to the U.S., that is not an option for domestic fireworks sellers.

It would take years to replicate the manufacturing base in another country, and fireworks executives are extremely wary about major changes that could upend safety protocols.

And though shipments for this year’s Fourth of July celebrations theoretically shouldn’t be affected by tariffs, vendors might raise prices anyway, to start making up for what they’ll lose once the taxes kick in. And come next summer, after years of record-breaking sales, fireworks might suddenly be scarce.

Fireworks have typically been the province of small businesses in the United States, starting with Italian immigrants who brought the trade with them. But regulatory shifts in the 1970s and ’80s have smothered domestic manufacturing as demand began to spike, and the businesses that had for generations passed down the craft of making pyrotechnics were forced to primarily become importers.

“The average small business is going to see anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000 in additional costs just to deal with current inventories,” Stephen Pelkey, chief executive of Atlas Pyro Entertainment in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, said. “We’re not even sure how we’re going to deal with it. Everyone is going to feel this pain.”

“This will cripple those tiny companies,” said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association.

It’s not just small businesses that stand to lose. Come summertime, many nonprofits, schools and churches briefly transform into fireworks retailers to raise money for other ventures they might otherwise struggle to afford: dances, uniforms, events, trips. For most of these groups, the tariffs would eat into an essential revenue stream.

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