Gambling proposal creates money vs. morals battle Foes say Dorchester resort would lead to higher crime

November 18, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

CAMBRIDGE -- A proposal by Harvey's Resorts & Casinos to build a $106 million waterfront gambling resort in this Dorchester County town is pitting morals against money in an escalating public debate.

Both commodities are highly valued in this rural Eastern Shore county, which has a long, proud tradition of agriculture and seafood -- and a lot of seasonal unemployment.

Opponents, led by four area ministers and two concerned residents, say that organized gambling will mean lower morals and higher crime. Supporters, among them the president of the County Commission, say that the resort will bring jobs and money to an area in dire need of both.

"Wherever there is a large amount of money to be made, you'll find organized crime," former FBI agent William Holmes told opponents crowded into a meeting hall Thursday night. "Money and greed are the name of the game."

Countered County Commission President Jeffrey C. Powell: "There's a $106 million deal on the table. They're not bringing anything here that's not already here." He and others say the county already has off-track betting and slot machines, and the resort would bring sorely needed jobs and economic development.

The resort proposed by Harvey's would without question have an enormous impact on Cambridge and Dorchester County. The company says it will spend $106 million to build a resort that would include a 300-slip marina, a 204-room hotel with shops, a conference center, a 300-car garage, several restaurants and a gambling facility with off-track betting and 1,000 slot machines.

Plans call for the resort to be built on a 7-acre site on the Choptank River in downtown Cambridge. "It's not a coincidence we picked Cambridge," said Gerard E. Evans, an Annapolis lawyer representing Harvey's. "It's [in] one of the most beautiful hTC counties in Maryland and they desperately need the work."

An off-track betting parlor already is in downtown Cambridge. And in Dorchester, as is the case in four other Shore counties, private clubs are permitted to have slot machines.

But to build the resort, the county must get state permission to have slot machines in a public facility. So the county plans to ask the legislature for a bill that would make slot machines a local decision. Then, say county leaders, they will put the issue before Dorchester County voters.

"Because that deal's here and it's real, we need to know: Do we need to pursue it?" said Powell. "The county and the city both are asking for a referendum question just for the people here."

Powell discounted opponents' concerns that gambling would bring increased violence, social problems and gambling addiction to Dorchester County. The issue is moot, he said, because Delaware has put gambling within easy reach of Maryland residents.

Recently, he said, he looked at a newspaper ad showing 14 people who gambled and won big prizes in Delaware. Seven of them were from Maryland. "If we've got people going to Delaware to play, they're not leaving their social problems there," he said.

Powell and three others on the five-member commission voted to ask the state for a referendum because they say the issue should be decided by Dorchester residents.

The fifth commissioner, Effie Elzey, voted against it because she says people don't want it.

"I've had a lot of people approach me and say they do not want it. They do not think it's a good economic plan for our county," Elzey said. The commission asked for public input, she said, and got 700 cards and letters that were "9-to-1 against."

Most troubling to opponents, however, is the moral issue of gambling and how it will affect the county's future.

"This is going to affect my town. I don't want Cambridge to be a casino town," said Mary Spellman Handley, one of the organizers of Thursday night's meeting on gambling. "It'll be a one-horse town, and that'll be it. It would be very difficult for us to control."

Handley and her group, a Dorchester County chapter of the statewide NOcasiNO, said they will stage more forums to debate the issue. Although public opinion appears to be fluid and fairly evenly divided, she said she thinks it's an uphill battle.

"This whole thing is like David fighting Goliath," Handley said. "When you're fighting an industry that has all this money, you do feel that way."

Pub Date: 11/18/96

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