If officials from the World Champion Punkin Chunkin Association want to continue to call Sussex County home, they're going to have to find a new location.
Dale Wheatley, owner of Wheatley Farms outside of Bridgeville, has informed chunk officials that he will no longer allow the contest to be held on his land, where it has been held at no charge since 2007.
“It's not that I don't want to. It's that I can't afford it,” he said Tuesday, April 1.
The association is already being sued for $5.5 million by a volunteer injured during the 2011 event when an ATV overturned on him. Wheatley Farms is a defendant in the lawsuit.
World Champion Punkin Chunkin Association President John Huber sent a press release to the Cape Gazette April 1 regarding the situation. He said the decision made by Mr. Wheatley wasn't a total surprise.
“While this is disappointing news, the [association] is, and has been exploring all options, and has maintained discussions with parties both within and outside of Delaware,” said Huber.
According to the association's website, this year's contest is scheduled Friday-Sunday, Oct. 24-26.
As of April 1, directions to the contest site continue to direct people to the Bridgeville farm and a map of its location continues to scroll across the top of the association's web page.
Future in Sussex in question
Wheatley's decision comes despite a January statement from Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, that Wheatley is protected by the indemnity and hold-harmless clause in Delaware contract law.
On April 1, Pettyjohn said he had a lengthy phone conversation with Huber on the phone March 31 about what's going to happen next. He said Huber said the association had already begun to look for a new location in case attorneys representing the association and Wheatley couldn't reach an agreement.
Pettyjohn said what he's going to do now is work with the Delaware Economic Development Office and the Delaware Department of Agriculture to find farmers in Sussex County, and then Delaware as a whole, who own large parcels of land who might be interested in hosting the event.
“My goal is to keep it here in Sussex County. It started here. It's grown here. It's been a huge boon to the local economy,” said Pettyjohn. “If we can't keep it in Sussex County, I want to at least keep it here in Delaware. The last thing I want to see is it leave the state.”
Wheatley said he doesn't know where the contest will move to - he thinks it's going to be Maryland - but he's not sure there's another farm in Sussex County that's large enough or willing to host the event. Wheatley said the association has been using at least 300 acres of his property for the weekend-long event.
“That field is about the only place for those cannon chuckers,” he said, estimating the field where the contest has been held is nearly two miles long.
Pettyjohn said there was a lot of land in Sussex County. He is confident the contest would remain in Sussex County if the right piece of property were found.
Dover could be new home
Huber said discussions have begun with Dover International Speedway to look at the feasibility of using the speedway property to host the event.
“The [speedway] leadership team has been very helpful in evaluating this location for use and has offered it to us provided it meets our needs and both parties can meet on terms and conditions,” said Huber. “This is by no means the approved 2014 site for the event and is simply one of the options available today.”
Wheatley understands the loss of the contest in Bridgeville will mean the loss of revenue to the surrounding communities, but the risk of hosting the event has become too much. Started in Lewes in 1986, Punkin Chunkin brings participants and fans from all over the country and world - 70,000 people attended the event in 2013.
“I can't chance losing everything I've got because someone wants to sue me,” Wheatley said.