He botched the St. Pete July 4th fireworks last year. This year, he's putting on Tampa's show

E.J. Weppel's new company, Angry Unicorn, will handle Mayor Jane Castor's signature new 4th of July event. Last year, St. Petersburg refused to pay his other company, Creative Pyrotechnics, after problems forced a cancellation.
Although St Petersburg’s fireworks were cancelled last year and Tampa’s were cut short, Clearwater residents were treated to a full show.
Although St Petersburg’s fireworks were cancelled last year and Tampa’s were cut short, Clearwater residents were treated to a full show.
Published June 12
Updated June 12

TAMPA — Mayor Jane Castor appeared to hit an easy political three this week with a plan to bench the fireworks vendor who dropped the ball two years in a row in favor of a new one who promises to light up 2.5 miles of Riverwalk this 4th of July.

The Tampa Downtown Partnership selected a fireworks company with a cool name, Angry Unicorn, to kick off "Boom by the Bay," which Castor wants to make a new city tradition.

Her predecessor, Bob Buckhorn, liked to turn the Hillsborough River green before St. Patrick’s Day, a practice Castor has pledged to continue.

But Castor is claiming her own mayoral prerogative, lighting up the river with launch sites at Armature Works, Sparkman Wharf, the Convention Center and Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park starting at 9 p.m.

READ MORE: Castor puts her own mayoral stamp on the Hililsborough River

But Angry Unicorn has a backstory. Last year, its sister company, Creative Pyrotechnics, botched St. Petersburg’s Fourth of July show so badly that the city refused to pay and is suing the firm. The same man who heads up Creative, E.J. Weppel, later founded Angry Unicorn.

So essentially, the guy who got fired in St. Pete last July is now in charge of Castor’s new mayoral tradition. He says he’s up to the task, having learned from last year’s mistakes.

Weppel pulled off a similar show in Tampa — Riverfront Rocks — last year and did a hitch-free job at Armature Works on New Year's Eve. Meanwhile, his other company, Creative, shot off fireworks along St. Pete’s downtown waterfront on New Year’s Eve and will handle the fireworks for the Sunshine City’s upcoming Pride weekend.

Weppel said St. Pete even reached out to Creative for the city’s Fourth of July fireworks show this year, but he declined to bid. He says the publicity surrounding St. Pete officials’ public rebuke of his company’s 2018 performance spurred the overhaul of his company, but he still feels unfairly singled out.

In light of the St. Pete fiasco, Downtown Partnership officials wanted to know if Weppel could pull off the ambitious plan for the Riverwalk without a hitch.

Weppel says he can.

“We’ve made a lot of correction actions,” Weppel said. “They just said ‘I know you guys had issues. We want to make sure everything goes right.’ ’’

Meanwhile, St. Pete’s lawsuit against his other company, Creative, continues even as city officials gauged his interest in redemption. Eventually, an Iowa company was selected by St. Petersburg for this year’s display.

“It’s just unfortunate they did what they did,” Weppel said. “Every fireworks company has issues once in a while.”

Castor’s spokeswoman Ashley Bauman said Weppel has done a good job in Tampa, most recently doing the New Year’s Eve show at Armature Works.

“They have executed for us every time,” she said.

Bauman said the private donors who put up $150,000 for the fireworks will be publicly identified on signage and other promotional materials.

“We hope to release that sooner rather than later,” she said.

Castor is putting the city’s reputation on the line by sponsoring the event. But the cost of the fireworks and their operation will be paid to Angry Unicorn by the Downtown Partnership, which funds most of its operations from an assessment on downtown businesses and residents. Some of the downtown partnership activities are supplemented with city tax revenue.

City money will pay for security and clean-up since it’s a city event, Bauman said.

The list of donors will become public over the next few weeks, Bauman said.

“When the checks come in,” she texted.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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