Ocean City's Invisible Menace

ANDREW RATNER

July 31, 1993|By ANDREW RATNER

Some of Ocean City's most prominent business people are fighting this summer to slay a serpent that most visitors to Maryland's beach resort can't even see.

They're suing the state to block the eight-month-old lottery game played at restaurants and bars called keno. Even before the game was launched at the beach and across Maryland, a half-dozen business people joined the town of Ocean City in the lawsuit last winter. A Worcester County Circuit Court judge this month tossed Ocean City out of the case, ruling that the municipality couldn't sue the state. But pending a further ruling, the half-dozen individuals remain and their properties are all familiar to Ocean City vacationers: Trimper's Rides, Dough Roller pizza, Seacrets nightspot, Dunes Manor, Harrison's Hall hotel and Harrison's Harbor Watch restaurant, among others.

The merchants see keno -- a casino-type game in which winning numbers are picked every five minutes and displayed on video monitors -- as a foot in the door to more gambling, particularly because the state has been disappointed with keno's returns so far. The business people also fear it as a drain on vacation budgets that would otherwise be spent in the shops that line the boardwalk and Coastal Highway. They speak of gambling with the kind of urgency they might reserve for an advancing northeaster.

''Ocean City took off as a successful family resort in the '50s, about the time the Bay Bridge came across and gambling was driven out of the town,'' explains amusement park owner and hotelier Granville Trimper.

He should know. His uncle, Daniel, was the mayor when the state police and county prosecutor smashed the illegal gambling racket in town. Barkers lined the boardwalk a half-century ago, enticing people to play the hundreds of slots in town.

''Visit Our Aquarium,'' hung a sign over one storefront -- with three mounted fish and six slot machines inside. When The Sun published an expose on the illegal activities in 1947, the brazen ,, operators considered it free advertising; ''This is the game The Sun talks about,'' they shouted to boardwalk passersby. Ironically, it was the state, under then-Gov. William Preston Lane, that rushed in to smother illegal gambling after Mayor Trimper appeared reluctant to put a halt to it.

But it didn't take long for the town fathers to realize gambling would choke their golden goose. In 1976, when a Prince George's delegate pushed to legalize gambling in Ocean City to follow the gaming-initiative in Atlantic City, O.C.'s state representative countered with a bill to legalize prostitution in P.G. ''It's a bedroom community'' the delegate reasoned, tongue-in-cheek, and with that the competing bills died.

With all that history preceding keno, it becomes more understandable why some long-time Ocean City inhabitants are so scared of this paper tiger.

If not for the lawsuit, though, keno wouldn't rate a mention in the resort. Out of 1,155 establishments that offer the game in Maryland, on ly 24 are in Ocean City, where the population swells to 200,000 people in summer. And although the state reports average keno sales in Ocean City a third higher than the state average, only a few operations seem to be doing the lion's share of the business. ''I don't think it's generating what we thought it would,'' said Sam Cook, general manager of the Carousel Hotel. In fact, one could easily go ''downy ocean'' and not even realize keno was there.

Moreover, keno is not going to alter the great attraction that the beach has for families or threaten the ''family atmosphere.'' This is, after all, a resort where the gas stations sell beer; the tavern names and novelty t-shirts refer liberally to genitalia and the boardwalk crowd at night looks like intermission at a Lollapalooza concert. On a recent vacation there, I even saw a few shops selling shirts with a picture of Barney the dinosaur being run over, beneath the lyrics, ''I hate you, you hate me . . .'' Disneyland, it isn't.

But Ocean City is an economic boon for the state and a comfortable-as-old slippers home away from home for thousands Marylanders. Even if the court challenge by townsfolk fails, keno isn't apt to change the place.

Still, you have to admire the fact that Ocean City stood up to the state and to Gov. William Donald Schaefer (who has since ex-communicated the town fathers) to fight a menace only it could see.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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