The countdown to the Punkin Chunkin Association's annual world championship pumpkin throwing competition is winding down. While thousands of spectators and vendors are already making plans to attend the nationally renowned Delaware event, the competition's organizers have yet to confirm exactly where the event will be hosted.
Each year, competitors from all over the country converge on the Wheatley Farm grounds in Bridgeville to see which team's homemade machines will be capable of slinging over-sized pumpkins the farthest distances.
The competition has been held at Wheatley Farms for the last seven years. But the farm's owner, Dale Wheatley now says he can no longer host the event, primarily because he's worried about potential liability issues.
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"If I know I'm gonna get sued, it definitely won't be on my property," Wheatley told NBC10's Tim Furlong.
Wheatley's decision stems from a 2011 lawsuit in which a pumpkin spotter seriously injured his spine when he hit a bump on his ATV and it rolled over him. He is now suing the farm and the Punkin Chunkin Association for over four million dollars.
As of Tuesday, 205 days remain before the big event.
President of the Punkin Chunkin Association John Huber was unavailable for comment late Tuesday, but Association officials have hinted that the event could be moving to Maryland.
Delaware Tourism officials say they are scrambling to keep the event somewhere in state.
Meanwhile, competition teams and business owners are expressing concern about the potential venue change.
Ralph Eschborn is captain of The Big 10 Inch team, which has been participating in Punkin Chunkin since 1998. The team's pumpkin cannon won them three Punkin Chunkin World Championships and earned the team a Guiness World Record for farthest distance to fire a pumpkin--5,545.43 ft-- in 2010.
Eschborn said he's seen several venue changes over the years--most of them due to the event outgrowing the designated space--but he believes this one could have a big impact on local teams and residents who treasure the nostalgic value of the event.
"Having participated as long as we have, we've seen some moves but those didn’t really pose any problem; those moves were not unfavorable. This ones a little different," he said.
"There's some uncertainty about whether they’ll have proper accommodations for the event. Plus, this is a contest that has roots deep in Sussex County. As a competitor from out of state, it’s a little less of a concern for us, but I'm sure it’s a big deal to a lot of the Delaware teams. To an certain extent, I’d like to see it stay in Sussex as well."
Delaware Tourism officials say the fall tradition attracts more than 100,000 visitors from around the world each year, and reels in millions of dollars in annual revenue for the state. The event also serves as a big revenue booster for area businesses like Jeff's Taproom and Grill.
"I look forward to Apple Scrapple every year and Punkin Chunkin every year. I mean those are your Christmases here," owner G.L. Jefferson said.
Jefferson also expressed his sympathy for Wheatley.
"It's just a shame that they have to take a chance on losing their family farm, something they worked their entire life for, for someone getting injured for a charitable event that does so much good for scholarships they give."
Funds generated from the event support scholarships for Sussex County high school seniors and recent high school graduates majoring in Agricultural Science, Mechanical Technology, Engineering, and other fields related to the event.
In 2013, $70,000 of the $100,000 in event ticket sales were distributed in scholarships.