Casino gambling could pump hundreds of millions of dollars into Maryland's lackluster economy or it could spell ruin for the state's centuries-old horse racing industry, advocates and opponents of the controversial measure told business leaders yesterday.
Jumping into a high-stakes debate, a five-member committee appointed by the Maryland Chamber of Commerce held a public "fact-finding" meeting to hear the pros and cons of proposals to legalize casino and riverboat gaming here.
That alone was unusual. The private organization was under no obligation to deliberate in public.
The group's decision to do so revealed the deep divisions that exist over the sensitive issue -- even for those who profit from gambling.
"We represent all the businesses in the state, and there are going to be some for it and some against it," said retired Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone President J. Henry Butta, the chamber committee's chairman. "There's a lot of good arguments on both sides."
If an alien had landed in the midst of the daylong event at the University of Maryland Baltimore County in Catonsville, he would have been convinced he had discovered parallel universes.
In one, casinos mean economic development, jobs, and tax revenue.
In the other, they kill the state's $1 billion horse racing industry and compete against restaurants and other sources of entertainment.
"Casino gambling is the greatest threat to me," said Joseph P. Pons Jr., a Harford County horse breeder. "Right now, we are a besieged industry. The only way we can make a living is if the racetracks are not imperiled by a bunch of guys in three-piece suits flying in here from Las Vegas."
Other states cited
Representatives of casino operators argued there are examples of the two industries living together successfully in Louisiana, Iowa and Illinois, where expanded gaming such as video poker is permitted at tracks.
And they argued that the potential benefits -- a claimed 31,500 jobs if nine casinos are approved statewide -- far outweigh the possible adverse impact. "I believe the race tracks can be a winner in this as well," said Ira C. Cooke, a lobbyist for gaming interests.
The arguments were a mere warm-up for the next legislative session in Annapolis, when proposals to legalize casino gambling are expected to become the hottest of issues.
A nine-member task force appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and General Assembly leaders is studying casino and riverboat gambling and will present its views before January. But the position of the 1,600-member Chamber of Commerce will likely carry a lot of weight in a state where "improving the business climate" has become the political anthem.
Mr. Butta was joined yesterday by fellow committee members J. Glenn Beall, the former U.S. senator from Maryland; Baltimore attorney Ronald E. Creamer; Richard E. Hug, chairman of Environmental Elements Corp. in Baltimore; and Thomas H. Sherlock, retired president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland.
Another public forum
The committee is scheduled to hold at least one more public forum and eventually make a recommendation to the chamber's 32-member board by October.
While the meeting attracted only about 50 people, it would have been difficult to throw a report -- even the voluminous four-inch-thick study offered by racing interests -- without hitting a veteran lobbyist.
"The real growth industry is lobbying," said Alan M. Rifkin, a lobbyist for the Laurel and Pimlico racetracks.
Advocates for churches and non-profit groups expressed concern over the harm casino gambling might wreak on the state. Aside from the new competition to bingo and casino nights, they questioned whether charitable contributions might dry up as people spend more of their disposable income on gambling.
"If Atlantic City has held a virtual monopoly on gambling on the East Coast for two decades, why isn't Atlantic City the gem of the East Coast?" said Martha Young, administrator of the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council.
Lawrence Evans, a spokesman for the maritime industry, suggested that Maryland would be better off with riverboats than casinos. Such gambling would be on a smaller scale, more easily contained and less likely to compete with horse racing, Mr. Evans said.
Jobs, taxes discussed
Casino interests mostly talked about jobs and noted that the tax revenues generated by their gambling houses could help keep taxes down for everyone else.
"A big business wants to come here and spend their own money to build big facilities but somehow we look askance at that," said James J. Doyle III, a lobbyist for Primadonna Resorts Inc. of Las Vegas, comparing gambling proposals to the state-financed effort to lure a National Football League team to Baltimore.
Mr. Doyle and other advocates also noted that racetrack owners are not against casinos, only against casinos they don't control.
Even Joseph A. De Francis, the owner of Pimlico and Laurel, admitted that he would push the state for casinos at his tracks if they pop up elsewhere in the Mid-Atlantic region.