Gambling on the Inner Harbor?

August 06, 1992

A $30 million sports museum and entertainment complex has been proposed to fill the Power Plant building, the cavity in the wide smile that is Baltimore's Inner Harbor. It will have a "Wide World of Sports" display honoring veteran sportscaster and Baltimorean Jim McKay, sports clinics, memorabilia shows and "virtual reality" theaters in which spectators will get the sense of riding a bobsled or powerboat racing.

The center wouldn't open for a couple of years, but already Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has inaugurated it with a maneuver no athlete could accomplish: playing both sides of the fence.

The mayor has said he wouldn't want Sports Center U.S.A., on the family-oriented Inner Harbor, to house off-track betting, but he doesn't want to restrict the lease for the city-owned Power Plant to preclude that option. The mayor said he wouldn't want to tie the hands of future administrations, but since when do officeholders strive to accommodate whoever's going to fill their shoes?

Some people make the connection between Sports Center U.S.A. -- an imaginative concept that may tap the public's immense devotion and willingness to spend money on sports -- and gambling because the proposal's principals are all involved in horse racing. Joseph De Francis co-owns Pimlico and Laurel race tracks; Lynda O'Dea is an executive for the tracks; and Henry Rosenberg, chairman of Crown Central Petroleum, owns a thoroughbred. Also, the General Assembly last spring approved legislation to allow off-track betting in Maryland. (The legislature also deflated an idea by a Baltimore County delegate, John S. Arnick, to establish a casino in the Power Plant to solve the city's and state's budget problems.)

Ms. O'Dea attempts to squelch any fears by saying gambling is a "closed subject." She says her group will agree to a restriction barring gambling if the city demands it. The city insists only that it doesn't want to insist.

The mayor can't have it both ways: Either he believes that a classy off-track betting venue wouldn't threaten the success of the Inner Harbor and says so, or he thinks gambling wouldn't work there and does something to block it.

Moreover, why would the city relinquish such a potentially lucrative right? If Maryland has a good experience with off-track betting in the coming years and the city and public come to feel that an outlet wouldn't poison the golden goose on the Inner Harbor, wouldn't that make the Power Plant more valuable? This is the same pliant stance we have seen the city take in its negotiations with the Orioles.

Wide World of Sports, a main attraction at the proposed museum, may have "spanned the globe to bring us the constant variety of sport," but Mayor Schmoke can't be all over the map on gambling in the Inner Harbor.

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