When Baltimore officials first sought proposals for recycling the Power Plant more than 10 years ago, cocktail party chatter around town invariably got around to an idea that might be a hit but that seemed unlikely to ever win approval.
If all else fails, observers joked, the city could always turn the Power Plant into a gambling casino on the Inner Harbor.
With Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke expected today to name a new developer for the Pier 4 complex, after a blue-ribbon panel's recommendation of a group in which two of the three principals have strong ties to the horse-racing industry -- those early quips are being repeated with a more serious edge.
If the city-owned Power Plant is indeed awarded to the group, which has proposed a $30 million sports museum and entertainment complex, is gambling in Baltimore's future?
"It's a natural question to ask," concedes Lynda O'Dea, head of the group that proposed Sports Center U.S.A. She is vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which runs the Pimlico and Laurel race courses. Her Sports Center partners are Joseph De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, and Henry Rosenberg, chairman of Crown Central Petroleum.
"I know, with my background, people think that's what it's going to be. But I can assure you, it's not," Ms. O'Dea said. "This is a family-oriented entertainment attraction, and we don't think gambling is appropriate to it. It's a closed issue."
One businessman who has voiced concern about the possibility of the power plant being used for gambling is developer Bill Struever, a partner of one of the six groups that was not recommended by the panel.
Mr. Struever said he has nothing against the sports center developers and is happy they want to invest $30 million in the Power Plant. But as a city resident concerned about public policy, he said, he hopes the Power Plant will not offer gambling of any sort and has made his feelings known to Baltimore Development Corp. President Honora Freeman.
FTC "I have a real problem with publicly supported gambling. It's bad for the whole ethic of society," Mr. Struever said. "Look at Atlantic City and what gambling has done to that town. It's a cesspool.
"It would be very sad to me if the Power Plant became an off-track betting parlor or gambling casino, and I hope it doesn't happen," he said.
Speculation about gambling at the Power Plant has been fueled because of state legislation passed last spring to permit off-track betting parlors as of July 1. The sites and operators must be approved by the race tracks and the Maryland Racing Commission.
In addition, Del. John S. Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat, proposed this year that the state Lottery Agency set up a casino in the Power Plant and allow the city and state to split profits as a way of solving budget problems. The idea never got off the ground.
Other waterfront cities, including New Orleans and Chicago, have been contemplating plans for gambling casinos as a way of generating revenue without raising taxes.
Ms. Freeman said the subject of gambling never came up in the talks between her agency and the developers. She added that the city can control whether gambling is permitted at the Power Plant through its lease with the tenant. But for now, she said, "It's not an issue that's in front of us."
If her group is selected, Ms. O'Dea said it would be willing to accept restrictions against gambling as part of any lease agreement.
The proposed sports center would feature exhibits that simulate various sports events and experiences, such as skiing down a mountain slope, as well as sports memorabilia.
Representatives of ABC Sports in New York have expressed interest in using part of the Power Plant to mount an elaborate display about the "Wide World of Sports," showcasing the 31-year-old program. A separate area would be devoted to Baltimorean Jim McManus, better known as Jim McKay, the original host of "Wide World of Sports."