Slots bring funds for upgrades at Delaware State Fair

With new revenue, fair officials were able to make much-sought-after upgrades, including constructing the Quillen Arena. (Submitted photo/Delaware State Fair)

In 1995, one year after the General Assembly approved allowing slot machines in Delaware, the board of directors for the Delaware State Fair held a vote on bringing video gambling to Harrington Raceway. Despite strong opposition from some quarters, particularly many churchgoers in the conservative communities in southern Kent and northern Sussex counties, the board decided by one vote to open slots.

That outcome was, according to a history of the fair, the result of a bitter fight that led to the resignation of the event’s president. It also may have saved the fair.

The 2019 publication “Treasured Tradition,” a celebration of the fair on its 100th anniversary, says the raceway was struggling financially at that time to the point that it was dependent on loans from the fair. The fairgrounds, meanwhile, were badly in need of repairs and renovations, according to the book.

The addition of slots brought in millions early on, and much of that money was reinvested in the fair itself.

Nearly a quarter-century later, the raceway continues to pay rent to the fair, which controls about three-fourths of the raceway’s stock.

Gary Simpson, around age 10, at the Delaware State Fair showing his cow with several relatives, including his uncle George Simpson. Both George and Gary eventually served as general managers of the fair. .

With the new revenue, fair officials were able to make much-sought-after upgrades, including constructing the Quillen Arena, ice rink, exhibit hall, barns and an office building, according to former fair General Manager Gary Simpson and the Delaware State News’ archives.

Over the years, those buildings have hosted countless visitors, including many of the four-legged kind, and some structures have seen use out of season. In addition to holding concerts, the Quillen Arena has even been the site of a political rally, with several thousand people flocking to it in 2016 when Donald Trump visited just days before the state’s presidential primary.

Thanks to the slots, fair officials had an influx of money, and among the upgrades made as a result of the new resources was one that was surely welcome: more paved roads.

“I remember my wife used to bring our kids out on the fairgrounds and they were dirt roads. Not all of them were dirt roads, I don’t mean that, but the carnival area was dirt and they would come home and just be filthy,” Mr. Simpson, who also served in the state Senate from 1998 to 2018, recalled last month.

Mr. Simpson was one of those original dissenters on slots, joining with the contingent on the board of directors who voted against bringing gambling to Harrington. Perhaps needless to say, he now believes the introduction of the video lottery was a boon to Harrington and the state fair.

A livestock parade travels the fairgrounds in 1947. As part of the centennial, the fair will bring back that event. (Submitted photo/Delaware State Fair)

Few people are more qualified to discuss the evolution of the fair in the second half of the 20th century than Mr. Simpson, who’s been attending the event for more than 60 years and is the namesake of a road running along the fair’s west side.

While the festival has grown and quite a few attractions have been added since the early years, one aspect remains the same.

“I think it’s retained its agriculture heritage. Otherwise, it would just be an entertainment park,” Mr. Simpson said.

The fair has been a Delaware icon for a century, and it continues to inform visitors about the valuable role agriculture plays in society.

Today, the Delaware State Fair stretches about 300 acres, with more than 20 buildings, and it regularly brings in around 300,000 people — approximately 30 percent of the state’s population — every summer. Even as other carnivals, expos and fetes have come and gone, the Delaware State Fair has remained.

The nightly parade marches through the the paved streets of the fair, an amenity that came as part of broader upgrades. (Submitted photo/Delaware State Fair)

That longevity might not have been possible without the introduction of slots, however, and the raceway might not have added gambling without the determination of Bill Chambers, who was president of the board of directors at the time of the 1995 vote and cast the tie-breaking ballot.

It’s almost ironic, really, that what many feared would permanently change the fair — and not for the better — may have been what enabled it to keep thriving.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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