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State guidelines fizzle man’s fireworks plans

At the beginning of June, Clarks Grove Golf Course co-owner John Tenneson came up with an idea.

With the annual Fourth of July fireworks canceled in Albert Lea, he started thinking, “Why not have them at the golf course?”

In addition to fireworks, there could be food vendors, inflatables and other activities for children, along with businesses that wanted to advertise their products and services, and it could be open for anyone who wanted to attend.

“My intent was to celebrate the Fourth of July with no restrictions,” Tenneson said, noting the festivities would have taken place on the 25-acre golf course and on the farm property directly to the south.

He said though many COVID-19 restrictions have been in place the last few months, little by little the restrictions have been scaled back, and he thought there would be some way to still have the display. There are also other fireworks displays scheduled throughout the area as well, including as close as Owatonna.

Though he has received some opposition to the idea, he said he had many people who were supportive — many of whom were also willing to donate money to the cause.

After filing for a permit last week, he said this week he was notified his permit was approved — with the caveat, however, that there could be no more than 25 people at the event per state guidelines for social gatherings. The county required the fireworks company put in writing that the fireworks could be canceled at any moment — even with a phone call.

Tenneson said the fireworks company would have charged $8,000 if it had to set up but didn’t start the fireworks and the full price of $16,000 if it started but had to stop in the middle. Tenneson anticipated the total cost to put on the event would have been between $20,000 and $25,000, including the cost of the fireworks, security, tent rental, equipment, signage, upgrades to the golf course and liability insurance.

Though he weighed the risks of moving forward with the event anyway, he said he couldn’t make the gamble.

“I just couldn’t risk other people’s money knowing that at any time somebody could have put a stop to it,” he said. “It would have been a lot of donations from folks who didn’t realize all the risks.”

If he had been able to put on the event with his own money, he said he thinks he would have gone ahead with it.

“If that was extra money, I would have tried anyhow and just seen how it went,” he said.

Tenneson said he was approved for a drive-in event but cars couldn’t park on the golf course because they could have damaged it, and there was not enough room otherwise to accommodate as many people as he anticipated might come.

He said he spoke with Freeborn County Sheriff Kurt Freitag several times about his plans and said he thought the sheriff did as much as he could, but his hands were tied.

Freitag said he investigated the request and then forwarded his investigation over to the county auditor’s office, which made the decision. Though he does not agree with the governor’s orders regarding various types of gatherings, the county had to abide by them, he said.

“He wanted to have three to five thousand people on the golf course,” Freitag said. “It’s such an important day in our country’s history and we should be able to celebrate the way we do, but unfortunately, this ridiculous order is still in place.”

The sheriff said though the Sheriff’s Office would not cite anyone for violating the state order, deputies would still enforce the governor’s order through education or through — in this case — stopping the event if necessary.

Freitag said this was the first time someone has applied to the county for a fireworks permit and he noted Tenneson had all of the required elements for the permit, including insurance approval.

There was no reason not to approve the permit, as long as Tenneson adhered to the guidelines.

“It’s so awesome of him to want to take this chance and do a fireworks display since Albert Lea backed out,” Freitag said. “What an American thing to do — to pick up the reigns and run with it.”

Freitag said it was ironic that he was the one who had to tell Tenneson that he would have to abide by those conditions, when he has always considered himself patriotic as well, noting his decades in the military and in law enforcement.

Though Tenneson will not be able to put on fireworks for the Fourth of July this year, he said he hopes to have an event later this summer that could involve fireworks, which he hopes can be a test run for next year.

“My plan is to have the largest fireworks display in southern Minnesota,” he said.