OCEAN CITY — With an abundance of caution and more questions at this point than answers, Ocean City officials this week gave conceptual approval to bringing the World Punkin Chunkin championships to the Inlet area in November.
For decades, the World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association hosted the iconic annual fall event in rural areas of neighboring Delaware, but it has been without a home since 2016 when a television producer was injured and later sued. That case was ultimately dismissed with prejudice and the association was cleared of any fault, but finding a new home in the region has remained a challenge.
That could change if the association and potential Punkin Chunkin promoter Bob Rothermel of TEAM Productions, which produces many of the special events in Ocean City including fireworks shows and certain concerts, for example, can work through a myriad of concerns and potential issues with holding the annual fall tradition at the Inlet. During Tuesday’s work session, Rothermel presented the annual TEAM Productions slate of events for 2019 and one conspicuous addition was potentially hosting the World Punkin Chunkin Championships at the Inlet during the first weekend in November.
By way of background, Punkin Chunkin includes all manner of catapults, trebuchets and even high-powered air cannons launching pumpkins great distances, as far as 4,000 feet, in some cases. For years, it was held at different farms in rural Delaware, creating a weekend-long festival of sorts with camping, tail-gaiting and watching the spectacle, which has gained national and even worldwide attention.
Rothermel told the Mayor and Council on Tuesday the tentative plan is to bring the event to the Inlet area in November. The various mechanisms would set up on the beach at the Inlet and launch pumpkins great distances out over the open ocean.
The launch areas would be cordoned off for safety although there would be some designated areas close to the action where tickets would be sold for the premium vantage points. Otherwise, thousands of spectators could gather in the free, open areas outside the ticketed areas.
A big part of the Punkin Chunkin event is the competition and Rothermel said organizers are still working through the challenge of measuring the launches, but the technology clearly exists. Some early suggestions include triangulated lasers measuring the distances or even chips put in the pumpkins themselves.
“We’re working on the particulars on how to track the distances for the competition,” said Rothermel. “That is probably the most important part of this.”
Nonetheless, despite voicing some obvious concerns that need to be worked through carefully, the council voted to approve TEAM Productions’ slate of special events for 2019 including the World Championship Punkin Chunkin event. Rothermel said he had been in discussions with the association about moving the event to Ocean City, but Tuesday’s work session was the first time the plans were made public.
“We’ve been in discussion with the Punkin Chunkin Association, which is looking for a site for their world championship event,” he said. “This could really put the punctuation mark on the end of the season.”
Rothermel explained how the traditional event could be sited at the Inlet in November.
“The line of trebuchets and long guns would be in safe zones along the beach and there would be safe zones for the spectators along with vendors,” he said. “They would charge to go into the ticketed areas, but spectators could watch from back at the Inlet lot and from the Boardwalk.”
He said safety measures would be in place after consulting with the town’s various departments and state and federal partners.
“Everything would be in the sand,” he said. “We would sink telephone poles in the sand with netting in case anything moved backward. On the north side of the pier, the youth divisions would be held along with some of the smaller demonstration parts.”
Punkin Chunkin was just one part of Rothermel’s larger slate of events planned for 2019, but it clearly garnered the most attention. Council Secretary Mary Knight said she supported the overall TEAM slate of events, but couldn’t get behind the Punkin Chunkin idea.
“I’m a big proponent for everything on here but the Punkin Chunkin,” she said. “Everything I’ve seen and read shows this is more of an agricultural event. I don’t know that it carries over well for Ocean City. It seems like an event better suited for Snow Hill. We are an agricultural county, but I’m not sure this pairs well with Ocean City.”
Rothermel said the same revenue distribution formula adhered to with other events such as the Cruisin events, for example, would be in place for the Punkin Chunkin event including a 10% share for the town. Knight expressed reservations about some of the well-known activities traditionally associated with Punkin Chunkin.
“There’s a lot of having a good time with alcohol,” she said. “We don’t allow drinking on the beach or on the Boardwalk. I just see this as a major enforcement issue and I’m not sure the 10% the town would receive would even cover all of the overtime needed.”
Rothermel said the drinking aspect of Punkin Chunkin had been toned down in recent years and pointed to other special events in the resort during which alcohol is served.
“From the alcohol standpoint, it used to be a bring-your-own event, but they stopped that because it became a Preakness infield-type event,” he said. “They really scaled back the operation from that standpoint. We sell beer there during the Springfest and Sunfest events and we sell alcohol during Bike Week. I just think those issues can be controlled.”
Councilman Mark Paddack said he fully supported the concept and said he had no concerns with the alcohol enforcement.
“It’s a little hypocritical,” he said. “We allow alcohol at these other events. I got chills when I saw Punkin Chunkin on this list. We are a tourist town and we’re part of Worcester County.”
Paddack said he had been to the Punkin Chunkin events in Delaware back in the 1990s and had seen firsthand some of the activities associated with it, but said the organizers had scaled back on it in the years since.
“I remember thinking it was a little over the top, but they’ve changed their operation,” he said. “There would have to be a lot of insurance built into the memorandum of understanding, but I’m not concerned with the alcohol and any possible strain on our resources.”
Punkin Chunkin organizer Dawn Thompson, herself a world champion, said the association wants the event to remain a Delmarva tradition, but said the association has exhausted its efforts to find a rural location.
“I’ve been to Snow Hill as you’ve suggested and we just can’t find the space with the right distance,” she said. “The ocean out there is unlimited.”
Thompson also offered assurances on the drinking concerns.
“As far as the alcohol goes, we are sure that can be controlled,” she said. “Ocean City has a great public transportation system as opposed to thousands of people driving out into a field somewhere.”
Of course, launching pumpkins thousands of feet out into the ocean could create different challenges.
“The entrance channel to the Inlet hugs the beach in that area and they would be shooting over that,” said City Manager Doug Miller. “I’m not sure the Coast Guard will be keen on that.”
However, Rothermel pointed out those types of issues would be vetted during the complex special event application process.
“We are aware of those issues and would go through all of that during the special event process,” he said.
“We can work through that process, but we need at least some conceptual approval before we get that far.”
Councilman Dennis Dare also pointed out some of the challenges with launching the pumpkins into the ocean.
“Look at the air show and there are notices to mariners to stay out of those areas,” he said. “It’s the same thing with rocket launches at Wallops. We’ve seen launches from Wallops cancelled because some clammer went into the box area. We have a commercial and recreational fishing industry in and out of there, and I would need a lot more answers on those issues. It seems like a great concept if all of those issues can be worked out.”
Rothermel said all issues could be addressed, but without at least some tacit approval from the council, there was not point in exploring it further.
“I think this is something viable,” he said. “I think we have the infrastructure in this community to work those things out. We only got this far to see if the council can support the concept. Otherwise, there is no use in going through that process.”
Knight said there were obvious liability issues to resolve with thousands of spectators cramming into the Inlet area where high-powered machines were launching pumpkins great distances.
“I think we need to look at the insurance concerns,” she said. “I’d be open to this, but we need a lot more information. I also think there are environmental concerns. You’re just going to have to prove it for me.”
Rothermel attempted to assure the council the liability and insurance issues would be carefully spelled out in any future memorandum of understanding for the event.
“TEAM puts our own insurance in front of this and the association has insurance,” he said. “There would be layers and layers of insurance.”
Paddack expressed his enthusiasm for the potential event and called some of the issues and concerns being voiced a little hypocritical.
“The questions that are coming up for this are the same questions asked years ago about the car shows and Bike Week,” he said. “It’s a little frustrating. This has the potential to be a real ‘wow’ event.”
Perhaps as a means of leverage, Thompson said Punkin Chunkin had been courted by other areas around the country, but reiterated the association’s desire to keep it a uniquely Delmarva event.
“My next choice is Illinois,” she said. “I’d hate to move the event out of this area, but if we can’t do it in Ocean City, we’ll have to move it somewhere.”
Councilman Tony DeLuca made a motion to approve the TEAM Productions’ slate of special events for 2019 including the World Punkin Chunkin Championships, contingent on each and every concern raised by the council being carefully vetted and all of the questions answered before final approval is given. That motion passed with a 6-0 vote Dare out of the room. Rothermel assured the council all questions and concerns would be addressed through the special event application process.
“There’s going to be a process to work through,” he said. “We will meet with every department head and every public safety department. There is a process to address all of these things, but we have to start somewhere.”