Downtown casinos? Don't bet on it Schmoke vows to kill any effort targeting Inner Harbor area

October 28, 1995|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke vowed yesterday to kill any plans for casinos in downtown Baltimore, saying they would clash with the area's family-oriented development.

The mayor said he would use any veto power he might have, including the zoning process or other legislative means, to stop casinos from being built around the Inner Harbor or elsewhere downtown.

Likewise, he said he would not allow riverboat casinos to operate in the city.

"I don't want to open the door to this downtown," Mr. Schmoke said during a City Hall interview. If gambling interests were to push a proposal for a downtown casino, he said, "I would kill it."

Mr. Schmoke said during this year's Democratic primary campaign that he generally opposed casinos, but his comments yesterday were his strongest to date on the gambling issue. They also were his first detailed response to last week's proposal by a Las Vegas company to build a huge gambling emporium next to the Inner Harbor.

Other possibilities

The mayor did leave alive the possibility of allowing two other kinds of casino-style gambling in the city -- slot machine wagering at Pimlico Race Course and gambling on cruise ships docked at a downtown terminal.

The General Assembly is expected to consider legalizing some type of casino gambling during its session beginning in January. A state commission headed by former U.S. Sen. Joseph D. Tydings is studying the issue and plans to make a recommendation to the governor and legislature by December.

NTC Joseph A. De Francis, president of the Pimlico and Laurel racecourses, has made it clear that he would like to add some casino-style gambling at his tracks if casinos were legalized in Maryland.

He also may ask for permission to install slot machines if slots opening soon at Delaware tracks hurt his business.

Mr. Schmoke said he would be sympathetic to such a proposal.

"If the racetracks came out saying, 'We've found a way of enhancing our business, not detracting from it,' that's something I would have to give serious consideration to," Mr. Schmoke said. "Pimlico is a significant employer and pays a lot of taxes."

He said the track can make a strong argument that slot machines at Pimlico would represent only an incremental increase in gambling rather than the dramatic expansion represented by casinos.

Mr. Schmoke also said he anticipates that cruise lines would want to offer dockside casino gambling if a proposed passenger terminal were built in the Inner Harbor area.

"I absolutely feel in my gut, if we build the terminal, the cruise lines will probably ask to let the ships stay open for gambling," the mayor said. "We'll have to face that issue."

He said he has not yet come to any conclusions about that idea.

A cruise line terminal

Maryland port officials currently are trying to develop a small-scale version of an Inner Harbor passenger terminal, after state legislators last year balked at the $50 million price tag for one initially envisioned.

Under state law, gambling is permitted on cruise ships in the Chesapeake Bay only as far north as the Key Bridge. State officials hope a new downtown terminal would persuade more cruise ship lines to call on Baltimore.

Mr. Schmoke's firm opposition to downtown casinos appears to short-circuit the proposal by Primadonna Resorts Inc. to build a $250 million hotel-casino project. The company's preferred site is the Inner Harbor East property south of Little Italy.

Representatives from Primadonna did not respond to a request for comment yesterday, although they have said that they believe they can sell the project as good for downtown Baltimore.

Also unavailable for comment was John Paterakis Sr., who owns the Inner Harbor East property being eyed by Primadonna.

Mr. Schmoke said he based his positions mainly on economic development considerations and less on questions about the morality of expanding gambling. The government already is heavily into gambling with the state lottery, he noted.

"As long as those of us in government are in the gambling business, it's hard for us to set any moral bright line," he said.

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