Chapel Hill will be introducing a new Fourth of July celebration and fireworks show this year at Southern Community Park in Southern Village.
In years past, the celebration was held at Kenan Memorial Stadium on UNC’s campus, but Town officials cited safety concerns as one of the chief reasons for moving the event to its new location.
Chapel Hill Fire Chief Matt Sullivan said the new artificial turf field at Kenan Stadium was a safety hazard and costly to protect. He said in the last two years the Town spent about $15,000 protecting artificial turf that only covered the outer edges of the field, and fireworks still left scorch marks on the turf.
“Our charge is to protect lives and property,” Sullivan said, “and with the turf and the nature of how fireworks work, the synthetic turf and the fireworks aren’t going to mix.”
More importantly, Sullivan said there were also accidents during the fireworks show itself.
“Last year during the show, there were three errant firework shots that instead of going up, they went sideways and shot towards the crowd,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said two of the fireworks deflected off the barrier wall on the bottom of Kenan Stadium, and one hit a canopy tent. Luckily, no one was injured. After discussing the incidents with the fireworks vendor, Sullivan said it was decided it would be best to move the show due to the possibility of another errant shot.
“I’m entrusted to make decisions that are in the best interest of our community’s safety, and our citizens’ safety and our visitors’ safety, and I’m not willing to place anyone at that risk,” Sullivan said.
The new location at Southern Community Park places the crowd farther away, Sullivan said, and a treeline will separate attendees from where the fireworks are shot. He said separating the crowd from the where the fireworks are shot was a benefit of hosting at the park.
Susan Brown, the executive director for community arts & culture in Chapel Hill, said that there were also some additional factors that went into the selection of Southern Community Park.
"We thought about the interests that were at hand," Brown said. "So we wanted a site where we could safely shoot fireworks; we wanted a site that was well-known to the community and familiar. We wanted a site that could hold a good-sized crowd and we wanted a site with the potential to partner with a second organization."
Brown said Southern Community Park fit all of these qualifications, and the Town was able to partner with Southern Village, which is providing all the non-firework programming for attendees at the Southern Village Green. This includes a band, special offers from Southern Village merchants, a Carolina Athletics tent and kids' zone.
What Brown said she really wants residents to know is that this will be a new celebration that is not an attempt to recreate what was done at Kenan Stadium for many years.
The park will open for the celebration at 7 p.m. and the fireworks display will start at 9:15 p.m. Brown said she wants to give people the option to participate in the activities organized by Southern Village or to simply relax with their family and friends on the park grounds.
Another important change that both Sullivan and Brown said they were excited for involved the scale of the fireworks show compared to the Kenan Stadium fireworks show, allowing for many residents to see the show all over the Town.
"The fireworks we're programming for Southern Village are much bigger and go much higher, so there's visibility beyond just Southern Village," Sullivan said.
On the website for the fireworks show, the organizers have created 3D models of how visible the fireworks will be from other Chapel Hill locations, such as Merritt's Pasture, Carrboro High School and UNC Memorial Hospitals.
Brown said that event has been the product of months of planning and coordination between a number of departments within the Town.
"We are over-planning and embracing the unknown, and we think this is going to be a really great time," Brown said.