Port officials seek gambling on bay


January 05, 1993|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Staff Writer

Compared to keno, this might seem pretty tame.

But Maryland port officials want to make sure that passengers can continue gambling in cruise ship casinos while sailing the Chesapeake Bay.

Maryland law currently prohibits such gaming in state waters. That forces cruise ships to shut down their slot machines and blackjack tables for the half-day or so that it takes to sail up the bay to Baltimore -- a journey that already hampers the city in attracting cruise ships that can sail far more quickly into most other ports.

Legislation permitting ship casinos to remain open has been defeated twice by Maryland lawmakers. And this year, even a highly restrictive measure could get caught up in the backlash over Keno, the casinolike lottery game that premiered yesterday in Maryland bars and restaurants.

"I think the mood has pretty much turned against gambling," said Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Lawmakers say they fear cruise ship gambling would result in so-called "cruises to nowhere," in which ships pick up passengers and then sail around the bay or its tributaries for a few hours of gambling. Law enforcement officials contend it lead to organized crime.

But port officials favor a narrowly written law that permits casino gambling only on foreign-bound ships while they are east of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. Such a law, they say, would attract more cruise ships to Baltimore -- without allowing people to board ships in the Inner Harbor merely to gamble.

"We're hoping that the legislature will look at this as not another gambling bill but as a real opportunity for economic development," said Raymond C. Feldmann, spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration (MPA).

"We're not going to get a nickel of the gambling money," he said. "What we will get is double the number of passengers who will get off at Baltimore and shop 'til they drop."

Despite the recession, the cruise business nationwide has grown dramatically. The number of cruise liners sailing to Baltimore, while still relatively small, has doubled over the past two years, to 17 a year. Typically, cruise ships, particularly those bound for the Caribbean, sail out of Miami and New York; Baltimore's niche is Nova Scotia and Bermuda.

A cruise ship gambling bill -- to permit what the MPA is now seeking -- was introduced last year by Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat. While it passed the House of Delegates, it was killed by Mr. Baker's Senate committee.

Ms. Hixson also sponsored a more far-reaching bill, known as a "riverboat bill," that would have allowed ships to pick up Maryland passengers at dockside to gamble on board. That bill was also defeated last year.

Ms. Hixson expects to introduce both bills again this year.

The cruise ship gaming bill is one of two measures needed to make Baltimore more attractive to cruise lines, port officials said.

They also are looking at two sites in the Inner Harbor in hopes of getting a privately owned passenger terminal built to replace the one at Dundalk Marine Terminal.

An Inner Harbor passenger terminal could be two years away, but port officials hope the law could be changed by the summer to permit cruise ship gambling.

Whether gambling is allowed would not be the most important factor in deciding whether to sail to Baltimore, but "it's absolutely a consideration," said Richard Steck, a spokesman for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines in Miami. The line currently has no service to Baltimore, but sails from New York to Bermuda.

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