Meet Delaware's Ultimate Festival Fixer
Barry Schlecker has resurrected some of the state's most popular events and made them better than ever. What will the 77-year-old tackle next?
Barry Schlecker’s greatest strength is bringing people together, says Ginger Weiss, his partner for 16 years. “He’s a pied piper.”//Photo by Joe del Tufo
At an age when some people are retiring, business owner Barry Schlecker started a new career.
As a member of the Wilmington Public Library board in the mid-1990s, he created shows of affordable antiques as fundraisers to pair with the Delaware Antiques Show.
The shows eventually fizzled, but a decade later he decided to show the important movies he wanted to enjoy on the big screen by starting a local film festival. “As I get older, I get bolder,” says the 77-year-old entrepreneur. The WilmFilm festival was so successful, one event became two, then three. “We prided ourselves on movies with a message,” Schlecker says, but the digital revolution led to their end.
Then, when organizers of the old Brandywine Arts Festival left some bills unpaid, a September tradition in Wilmington for 50 years was canceled. The next year, the state called in Schlecker, who gave it a new name and new features. Success again. Thousands of visitors returned. One revival became two when he resurrected the New Castle County Ice Cream Festival. Finally, this year, he took over Hockessin’s July Fourth festivities—with a bang.
Schlecker’s events company employs just one part-timer and several contractors. “You call Barry’s Events, and you get Barry,” he says. “It’s my personal number on all the publicity.”
So his events are run with connections built over a lifetime. A Delaware native, he started his first company, a personnel business, in 1966. It evolved into the Barry Companies, which also handled recruiting. As founder of networking groups Delaware Business Executives and the Delaware Industrial Network, he has many connections.
“His greatest strength is bringing people together,” says Ginger Weiss, his partner for 16 years. “He’s a pied piper.”
The best events offer “good music, good food and good artists,” Schlecker says, so that is what he creates. When Hockessin’s July Fourth organizer Ken Wynn wanted to retire, the Hockessin Business Association called Schlecker to save it. Schlecker identified several issues that kept it from being the best event it could be, including groups with different agendas and events scattered in time and place. He tackled both, meeting with Wynn and representatives from the Hockessin Athletic Club (morning relay races), the Hockessin-Greenville Rotary Club (afternoon parade), the Hockessin Fire Company, the business association and others.
What good stuff would draw people to Hockessin all day and keep them there until the fireworks started, Schlecker wondered? How about activities on Old Lancaster Pike? Shouldn’t it all have a unifying brand? Hence the Hockessin Fourth of July Festival and Fireworks on hockessin4thofjuly.org, which offered all those things.
The MO for the arts festival was similar. Schlecker renamed it the Brandywine Festival of the Arts; took suggestions from the artists; and added food trucks and adult beverages to carnival food offerings, a performance stage and children’s activities. “We cleaned up the place and brought it back to its roots,” he says.
Soon after taking over the Brandywine Festival of the Arts, Schlecker sold his personnel business. Then the time came to revive the ice cream festival.
The event, started in 1983 as a fundraiser for the Friends of Rockwood, was taken over by New Castle County in 1998, then, due to the high cost of running it, was canceled a decade later.
“I took away the fireworks and the expensive stuff,” he says. Again, he brought in local vendors and activities that would entertain families for hours. He dubbed it “Delaware’s largest family picnic.”
The debut was on one of Delaware’s hottest weekends ever: July 7, 2012, but it was an unqualified success.
But he still has events to run—Taste of the Holidays, a fundraising reception for various charities, will debut at The Delaware Contemporary in December—and things to think about.
“I’m a thinkaholic. My mind is always working,” he says. “I’m always thinking about networking and how to help. As I go into a restaurant, I think about ways to make it better.”
He has also thought about the future of his events. Running the Brandywine Festival of the Arts will pass to his son, Rob.
“I’m well on my way,” says Rob Schlecker, who jokes that he is five years into a four-year succession plan. Like any new hand, he has new ideas, but, “The festivals will lose something,” he says. “My dad’s personality is so much of them. He’s the de facto mayor of these weekends. I don’t have that personality and will overcome that with hard work.”
There are no family successors for the other events, Barry says, which is why he partnered with WJBR for last July’s ice cream festival. It will take over—eventually. “He doesn’t seem to want to stop,” says Susan Forbes, who did contract work for Barry’s Events for three years before being hired by WJBR as an event producer. She notes Schlecker’s interest in exposing families to the arts and giving them low-cost staycation options.
Schlecker has had talks with several charities he believes could step up for Taste of the Holidays, and he has identified a few business leaders who could take over Hockessin’s patriotic festivities. “Everyone likes it,” he says. “It’s a matter of who opens up their checkbook.”
And there are other preparations to make for retirement. He has started to sell his art, 300 to 400 pieces in his offices, plus 100 that Weiss allowed into their home. “I’m trying to downsize, sort of,” he says. She has also encouraged him to sell his real estate. “He recognizes he needs to simplify his financial picture so he can enjoy life,” Weiss says of their “sensational 70s.”
But both retain active business lives, his in, well, so much, hers in life insurance. “Staying involved with younger people gives us ideas and keeps us fresh,” Weiss says. “It energizes us.”
For six weeks each winter, they recharge on Isla Mujeres off Cancun, Mexico. There it’s time to enjoy e-books, TV series worth binge watching, movies that he should have seen, and music from the 1960s and ’70s. “I love media. It’s an escape. I get lost,” he says. Most importantly, there are visits from family members, including his five grandchildren and Weiss’ six.
And after those breaks, it’s time for another year of events. “His art is putting it on,” Rob says. “His art is people.”