TAMPA — Fireworks will go off across Tampa Bay Friday night in celebration of the country’s Independence Day, but the explosions are just starting in a legal fight between two of the area’s largest fireworks dealers.
Galaxy Fireworks recently filed a lawsuit against Phantom Fireworks, accusing its competitor of violating state law by opening a new business at 3642 Gandy Boulevard in Tampa. The lawsuit says Phantom is in violation of a 2007 state law that prohibits new fireworks businesses from opening anywhere in Florida.
The Galaxy Fireworks lawsuit also names Tampa police Chief Jane Castor, Tampa Fire Rescue Chief Thomas Forward and Tampa Fire Marshal Milton Jenkins. The suit demands they arrest Phantom Fireworks “officers and agents” or close the store down and seize its contents.
Phantom Fireworks has filed its own lawsuit in which it says the company hasn’t opened a new business but instead simply transferred its active state licenses from a Clearwater store it closed a few years ago. The transfer was approved by the state’s Florida Department of Financial Services, said William Weimer, vice president of Phantom Fireworks, based in Youngstown, Ohio.
“We qualify for the issuance of the permit,” Weimer said. “We don’t believe we opened a new fireworks sales facility.”
The Phantom lawsuit names the city of Tampa and Jenkins and says they should be forced to issue the company two city permits -- a retail sparkler sales permit and wholesale fireworks sales permit. The suit says city officials approved plans to remodel the leased building, and fire officials approved the building’s fire safety inspection, fire protection code and fire protection systems.
Weimer said the company spent $500,000 remodeling the building on Gandy, which it opened in December. The business continues to operate while the lawsuits are going through the court system.
“There is no violation of the Tampa fire code,” Weimer said. “Tampa Fire Rescue has no right to withhold that permit from us. It’s beyond their scope of authority.”
Weimer said Phantom Fireworks has twice opened a new location in Florida using existing state licenses from other stores that had closed down. This is the first time the company has transferred a license from one county to another, he said.
“I don’t think we would be talking about this except for the complaint of the competitor,” Weimer said.
Tampa Fire Rescue investigators have cited Phantom Fireworks four times -- once each in December, February, March and May - for selling fireworks without a permit. A criminal report affidavit was filed on May 1, accusing the store of two counts of operating without a permit, according to Tampa Fire Rescue records.
A court hearing is pending in the municipal violations court, according to the city of Tampa.
After the February visit, the Tampa Fire Rescue inspector wrote that the Phantom Fireworks on Gandy Boulevard needed to obtain its “wholesale permit from the city to sell fireworks.” The document also states that the “store can only sell to other distributors at this time and shall not sell to the public. Failure to comply with the above shall result in closure of the business.”
Tampa City Attorney Julia Mandell said she has not seen any information provided by Phantom Fireworks that the state has approved the transfer of the license from the Clearwater business to the Tampa business.
“They have not provided the city with any document ... that it’s a transfer,” Mandell said. “I haven’t seen it. I don’t know if that exists. If they have it, show it to me.”
Ashley Carr, deputy communications director for state Department of Financial Services, said the state registers vendors to run fireworks and sparkler businesses. The registration, she said, applies throughout the state and can be transferred from county to county.
However, it is the local jurisdiction that issues the permits, she said.
“It’s the onus of the business to obtain any permits needed to conduct business within that county’’ or city, Carr said. “A registration (from the state) doesn’t alleviate the need of a permit.”
The attorney for Galaxy Fireworks, which has its headquarters in Tampa, declined to comment.
Regulations affect the competition between the two fireworks companies. Hillsborough County allows the sale of fireworks shot from the ground. Pinellas County does not, according to the Galaxy Fireworks lawsuit.
The location of the Phantom Fireworks store on Gandy Boulevard provides easy access for people in Pinellas County because it’s just over the Gandy Bridge on the Tampa side, the Galaxy Fireworks lawsuit states.
“Phantom’s Store was set up and established primarily to strong-arm Galaxy, undercut Galaxy’s Tampa location, interfere with Galaxy’s business, and procure Galaxy’s customers,” according to Galaxy Fireworks lawsuit. “Galaxy has repeatedly urged local officials to enforce state and local laws; however, they fail or refuse to do so.”
Weimer, though, said he’s confident Phantom’s “position will be validated by the court.”