Inlet lot proposed as site for November lord of gourds competition

(May 3, 2019) Ocean City Council members on Tuesday took the first steps to bring the World Championship Punkin Chunkin event to the resort this November.

The event, held during the first full weekend after Halloween in Delaware from 1986 through 2013, has struggled to find a permanent home because of legal issues.

Event organizers quarreled in 2011 with a Bridgeville, Delaware landowner who for many years provided a venue for the contest. That suit was later settled out of court.

Punkin Chunkin later moved to the Dover International Speedway, but was again halted after 2016 because of an injury-related lawsuit. Suzanne Dakessian, a television producer associated with the show, was severely injured when one of the launching devices exploded. Reportedly, she and another person were standing in a restricted area at the time.

A deal to bring Punkin Chunkin to Ocean City apparently materialized during the last several weeks and was part of Bob Rothermel’s T.E.A.M. Productions Event Enhancements proposal to the City Council during Tuesday’s work session.

His suggested 2019 events lineup included two dozen fireworks shows divided between the Talbot Street Beach and Northside Park, an Aug. 24 outdoor concert in conjunction with the Art X festival, and O.C.toberfest happenings, which would include a beach maze on Oct. 19, 20, 27 and 28, and a pet parade and “Great Pumpkin Race.”

A surprise addition was the World Championship Punkin Chunkin contest, Nov. 1-3 at the Ocean City Inlet parking lot. According to a brief proposal, the event would include about 100 mechanical “chunkers” launching pumpkins into the ocean, with the longest throw taking home the top prize.

In total, Rothermel’s funding request was $293,000, with 10 percent of event proceeds, including those from ticket sales and sponsorships, going back to the city.

“This is what we would like to propose to ... put the exclamation point at the end of the summer season and get ready for Winterfest,” he said of the global gourd launching competition, adding the event has “been without a good home” for several years.

Dawn Thompson of the Punkin Chunkin Association, and a former world champion of the event, apparently has been in talks with Rothermel. He estimated the event could bring 30,000 people to the resort during the shoulder season.

Dawn Thompson

Former Punkin Chunkin world champion Dawn Thompson, with Bob Rothermel, addresses the Ocean City Council during a work session on Tuesday about bringing the event to the resort. 

Rothermel envisioned a setup similar to Springfest and Sunfest, with the inlet lot closed to create a venue  where the catapults and trebuchets can launch the pumpkins, which can travel more than 4,000 feet. He admitted they were still working on the best way to measure the distance of each throw as it splashes into the sea.

Councilwoman Mary Knight expressed concerns about safety and of how well the event would fit into the town. As something of an agricultural event, Knight wondered if Snow Hill wouldn’t be a better fit.

Thompson said her husband started the event in 1986 “to see how far a pumpkin could fly,” and as part of a search committee this year she has “looked all over” for a new venue, including in Snow Hill.

“The fields are just not quite big enough out there for the landing zone,” she said. “That’s why I’m running into a lot of issues. They’re not long enough for the 4,600 feet, which is what our [record] distance is. Out near the ocean, it’s unlimited.”

Thompson added that competitors come from as far as Colorado and Australia, while fans had come from as far aways as Washington State, Arizona and Alaska.

“They’re coming from all over, just regular people coming to watch the event ... It’s a big phenomenon and they want to see what’s going on at Punkin Chunkin,” she said.

Knight also worried about drinking during the event, which she said had become similar to the Preakness, and added she’s heard Punkin Chunkin draws closer to 100,000 people.

According the Rothermel, there had been issues related to alcohol during previous events, but that was because it was once “a bring-your-own event.”

“They stopped that because of that Preakness mentality, and they sold beer and that got it under control,” he said.

Knight said if they planned to sell beer on the inlet parking lot at all “it’s definitely a ‘no’ for me,” but Councilman Mark Paddack called her a hypocrite.

According to Paddack, “Springfest, Sunfest, [the] Bike Week event, OC Jam [and] the Air Show — we allow alcohol out on the beach in that controlled area.”

Paddack said he got chills when he saw Punkin Chunkin was on Rothermel’s list, adding he attended the event twice during the 1990s.

“It was, in my opinion, at that time, a little bit out of hand, because we did bring our own beer,” he said.

“Oh, so it was you!” Rothermel said with a laugh.

“That’s part of my unique experience as a councilman,” Paddack replied.

He went on to say organizational changes helped to make the event “much more professional” during later years.

“It was a tragedy that ... one of the machines exploded and somebody got hurt, and then the lawyers got involved and destroyed literally a world-recognized event,” Paddack said.

His only concern was that the city and event organizers be properly covered by insurance, comparing the situation to car events in the town.

“That same danger occurs during spring car Cruisin, when we have 800-horsepower race cars with slick tires running up and down Coastal Highway,” Paddack said. “There’s always some inherent liability with every event and we would like to protect the city in that aspect.”

Paddack added he was not concerned about the alcohol component, “as long as people are mature and responsible, and act like adults.”

“You’ve got 100 percent of my support,” he said. “These hotels will be packed. The restaurants and the alcohol establishments will do extremely well for this event.

Bust o Matic

Dawn Thompson's record-setting Bust-O-Matic Punkin Chunkin launcher.

“I saw this and I said, ‘Wow.’ This is vision for Ocean City in the shoulder season — unlike cars riding around town, unlike motorcycles — this is all downtown and I think it’s going to be a great thing,” Paddack added.

City Manager Doug Miller initially suggested deferring a decision until the city works out an agreement with the U.S. Coast Guard.

“The entrance channel that comes into the inlet hugs the beach in kind of a northeasterly and southwesterly direction, which we would be shooting over. I’m not so sure that the Coast Guard is overly thrilled with that prospect,” Miller said.

Rothermel pointed to powerboat races previously held in that area, and said a marine permit could clear that up, as could the town’s standard event permitting process.

“We can put these plans in front of all the department heads, so that they can look at them and isolate any issues, and correct them,” he said. “But, we need a starting point.”

Councilman Tony DeLuca moved to approve Rothermel’s entire request, “contingent upon all the questions answered for a Punkin Chunkin, and with the approval from the mayor and council for those questions.”

Rothermel suggested proceeding with a special event permit process, which would then come back to the mayor and council for approval.

Councilman Matt James provided a second and the vote was 6-0. Councilman Dennis Dare was out of the room when the vote occurred.

Just before the vote, Thompson added a note of caution.

“My next choice is going out to Illinois. I’d hate to see this event leave this area. I’d like to keep it here on Delmarva,” she said. “They want us out in Illinois ... [and] they’ve got land and they’ve got places to do it.

“I’ve been to Snow Hill, I’ve been to Frankford (Delaware), I’ve been over to Vienna — I’ve talked to people all over the state and Delmarva Peninsula to see if we can find somebody that wants to let us come and have this event,” she added.

When Rothermel originally pitched the idea, Thompson said she thought it was crazy.

“But, every time I talk to people about it, they’re like, ‘That’ll be cool, seeing them go out in the ocean.’ So, people are really excited about the idea,” she said. “That’s what I’m hearing on the street.”

Josh Davis is an MDDC award-winning editor and reporter at the Bayside Gazette and Ocean City Today newspapers, covering Berlin and Ocean Pines, Maryland. He is the author of three novels, including 'Vanishing is the Last Art' (2012). He lives in Berlin.

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