Little Casinos

March 15, 1995|By ROBIN MILLER

Baltimore is a nice place to visit, but nice isn't good enough in the world of big-time tourism and convention promotion. We need to go beyond nice. We need to bring in casino gambling to help promote Baltimore as a tourist and convention city.

When I say, ''casino gambling,'' I am not talking about huge casino-hotel complexes like the ones in Atlantic City. Building two or three monster casinos here would be a mistake. Their owners would have too much political power because of the sheer number of jobs each one would control, and granting only a few, precious gambling licenses would lead to as much bribery and corruption as we had when local cable TV franchises were awarded.

Instead of granting only a few gambling permits, and giving them to big national companies, we should:

* Issue a large -- even unlimited -- number of casino permits.

* Limit each casino to a maximum of 200 patrons at one time.

* Allow casinos to offer only gambling, ''snack bar'' food and non-alcoholic beverages. Period.

* Allow each licensee to own only one casino.

* Grant casino licenses only to individuals, not corporations, and give licensing preference to local and minority entrepreneurs.

A gambling industry developed under these rules would not compete with the hotels, restaurants and bars we already have. Casino patrons who wanted to buy a drink, eat a meal or rent a hotel room would patronize existing businesses.

Keeping our casinos small, and creating a competitive business environment for them, would encourage the creation of imaginative games and gambling environments. One casino owner might decide to create a high-volume, low-overhead establishment full of slot machines. Another might opt for a ''potted palms'' feel and offer roulette and baccarat, with a live pianist playing under a slow-turning ceiling fan. Yet another might offer high-tech virtual-reality games in an atmosphere of techno-punk glitz. The possibilities are endless.

Some would succeed. Some would fail -- and be replaced by others. Gamblers would find new games every time they came to Baltimore, which would encourage them to visit us again and again, not just once.

But Baltimore should not stake its entire future as a tourist destination on gambling. A children's museum and related businesses in the vacant Fishmarket and Brokerage buildings, and the Christopher Columbus Marine Center, will also help bring visitors.

Gambling won't make the National Aquarium less popular, or take art buffs away from the Walters Art Gallery and the Baltimore Museum of Art. All small-scale gambling will do is lengthen the list of attractions Baltimore offers potential visitors. An old dictum says, ''Give your customers every reason you can think of to patronize your business instead of your competitor's.''

Legal gambling would bring us conventions we wouldn't otherwise get. It would bring suburban residents into town who now see no reason to spend an evening inside the city limits. It would slow the flow of Baltimore money to Atlantic City via tour bus and train. And gambling could help us clean up some our city's worst areas.

The blocks of Baltimore Street west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard are now inhabited, after dark, almost entirely by streetwalkers and drug dealers. Imagine 10 or 12 brightly-lighted casinos in the area, with cabloads of well-dressed tourists coming and going almost constantly.

Imagine a similar ''gambling strip'' along Park Heights Avenue, near Pimlico Racetrack. The neighborhood is now so dingy that many suburban residents and tourists are afraid to go to the races. Bring a little life and light to the area, and more horse players would show up.

This scenario could be repeated in any one of a dozen Baltimore neighborhoods. And by requiring each casino worker to take a class in gambling management before going to work, and giving employment priority to local residents who are now on welfare or collecting unemployment compensation our casinos would create jobs for the people who need them most.

Beside providing jobs and a boost to tourism, gambling would instantly become a significant source of tax revenue, which would help free Baltimore from its dependence on federal and state aid.

But the tax money gambling would bring is secondary. The main reason to legalize small-scale gambling here is that a home- grown, competitive casino industry, combined with the attractions we already have and those now being built, could turn Baltimore into the East Coast's most popular convention and tourist city.

Robin Miller is a Baltimore taxi driver.

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