Before too long, Delaware Park will be under new ownership with Canadian private equity investors and a gaming industry veteran buying up the property in the Christiana-Stanton area.
The Rickman family owned the place for decades, rescuing the former duPont family property from bankruptcy and the runaway development that was in vogue in the 1980s.
The Maryland family hit paydirt with a sweet deal that brought slot machines and later table games to Delaware as a way to offset tough times in the horse racing business.
Unlike their counterparts in other states, Delaware Park and the other two tracks in the state did not have to pay hefty upfront fees. It proved for a time to be a license to print money and became a major source of revenue for the State of Delaware.
The Rickmans’ heart seemed to be on the horse racing side of the business. They chose not to build a glitzy casino and hotel. That helped Delaware Park remain a locals casino with an active racing schedule.
The glory days ended as Maryland and Pennsylvania gave the green light to casinos.
That’s when rumors of the Rickmans cashing out started.
A staggering blow came out of the financial crisis of 2009 when the General Assembly raised one of the nation’s lowest profit-sharing arrangements with casinos to one of the highest.
Dover Downs, which spent heavily on a casino-hotel-convention center, struggled to break even. Privately held Delaware Park never revealed its financials, but with lower overhead costs should have been marginally profitable.
Relief came in the form of a bill pushed through by Kent County legislators worried about continuing cutbacks in staff. It wasn’t long afterward that Dover Downs, controlled by the Rollins family, sold out to Rhode Island-based Twin River, now known as Ballys.
This week, it was announced that the other Rollins business, Dover Motorsports, will be sold to one of the two big NASCAR track owners.
The release announcing the Delaware Park sale offered no hint of the new owner’s future plans.
Travel and tourism officials would like to see a free-standing casino that might attract out-of-towners, a change from the current configuration that has sometimes been dubbed the “bus station.”
The Rickmans will not go away entirely, since they are keeping the adjacent White Clay Country Club.
The sale might clear the way for limited development for the property that borders Amtrak and SEPTA rail lines. There was a time when a proposal for a transit-friendly mixed-use area was aired.
Some of the town center features could eventually come a few miles away at the University of Delaware’s Star Campus – the former Chrysler plant and home of a new Newark railroad station. Only a fraction of the STAR site has been developed.
Also in their early stages are plans to turn a portion of Newport into a transit-friendly area, perhaps with a SEPTA rail stop.
Whatever happens, an era has ended as the Rollins and Rickman heirs move on. – Doug Rainey, chief content officer.