Bill would allow larger cash prizes at bingo halls Gary-backed measure aims to boost competitiveness

September 05, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

The Gary administration wants to allow Anne Arundel's commercial bingo halls to award larger cash prizes as they struggle to stay competitive in a multibillion-dollar national industry.

Under a bill presented to the County Council Tuesday night, the county's five commercial bingo halls would be allowed to raise total daily prize money to $15,000 from $10,000. Bingo operators still would be allowed to run an unlimited number of games with prizes of $500 or less.

In addition, the operators would be permitted to award prizes worth $50,000 in four special sessions each year compared with the $20,000 limit now allowed. That sum could be awarded in one jackpot or in a series of smaller prizes.

On those "big game" days, which would have to be licensed by the county's Department of Planning and Code Enforcement, bingo operators also would be allowed to run an unlimited number of games with prizes of $1,000 or less, double the prize money now allowed. Those awards would not count toward the $50,000 ceiling.

"I think it will bring us back up to where we used to be," said J. Scott Cook, general manager of Bingo World in Brooklyn Park. "We used to have huge crowds. Now they are awful. This is a way of helping us get back."

The bill, sponsored by County Executive John G. Gary, has been in the works for almost eight months. The intent is to give an edge to the local bingo industry, which paid $675,000 in taxes to the county last year, while increasing revenues for the county, which collects 7.5 percent of the bingo halls' gross revenue in taxes.

"We see this as a way we can level the playing field," said Lisa Ritter, Gary's spokeswoman. "It's geared more toward the economics of owning a bingo parlor than gambling."

The larger prizes, which county prosecutors warn could expand a form of legal gambling they consider dangerous, might help Anne Arundel operators attract county and out-of-state customers who now choose among Delaware slot machines, New Jersey casinos, huge gaming halls on Indian reservations in the Carolinas and as many as 800 other bingo parlors in Maryland and Virginia.

Adding to the competition, nearly every Maryland town has a church, firehouse or civic organization that offers weekly charity bingo games, which are not regulated by county law.

Calvert is the only other Maryland county that allows commercial bingo. Chesapeake Amusements, which runs two bingo halls in Calvert County, is allowed to offer $50,000 in prizes on big-game days.

Bingo in Anne Arundel has an unsavory history.

In 1992, six defendants linked with organized crime admitted in U.S. District Court in Baltimore that they used Bingo World to launder money raised by robbery, loan-sharking and gambling.

Stephen B. Paskind, a Florida businessman who owned the bingo hall, was identified as an unindicted co-conspirator. Two years later, he sold Bingo World to Arundel Amusements for more than $4 million.

"It doesn't strike me that this is a large enough increase [in prize money] that it would affect crime," said Anne Arundel State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee of the bill. "By the same token, my position is that gambling will always increase crime, and we have worked hard to stop that in this county."

More threatening to local bingo operators has been the explosive growth of gambling.

Charter buses bring bingo players from New York, New Jersey and Washington to Anne Arundel's two largest bingo halls, the 2,000-seat Bingo World and the 700-seat Bingo Palace in Gambrills. But serious players, drawn to fat jackpots, travel as far as Cherokee and Seminole Indian reservations in South Carolina and Florida that feature 8,000-seat halls and $1 million prizes.

Bingo World pays more than 400 van drivers $15 for each player they bring to the Brooklyn Park hall. Those prices have been increasing, which Cook says is the reason for lifting the limits on daily prizes to $15,000.

"The big sessions are the way of keeping our heads above water," Cook said. "The smaller games, well, welcome to the world of inflation. We have to pay our bills and keep enticing players with better packages."

In Calvert, the owner of Chesapeake Amusements, Gerald W. Donovan, said he doesn't oppose Anne Arundel's effort to increase prize money. Donovan runs two bingo halls -- the Rod-n-Reel just over the county line in Chesapeake Beach and Island Bingo in Solomons. But business has been slow recently.

Pub Date: 9/05/96

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