CUMBERLAND - Residents of Allegany County jammed a ballroom at the Holiday Inn here yesterday to speak their piece about a horse track proposed in their slice of Western Maryland heaven.
During a three-hour hearing before the Maryland Racing Commission, 38 residents from one end of the county to the other voiced opinions about the proposed track. The final tally was 24 against, 14 in favor. That was closer than many had anticipated.
"I didn't think it went that badly," William Rickman Jr. said. "I thought more people would come out against it."
A Montgomery County developer and owner of the Delaware Park racetrack and slots emporium, Rickman and his father, William Rickman Sr., have submitted one of the two applications for the license to build and operate the track.
Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, has submitted the other. Majority stockholder of Pimlico and Laurel Park, De Francis submitted his in partnership with Rosecroft Raceway, the harness track in Prince George's County.
The Rickmans' proposal calls for a track at the eastern edge of Allegany County, 22 miles east of Cumberland. The Maryland Jockey Club-Rosecroft proposal calls for one at the county's western edge, seven miles west of Cumberland.
Both proposals call for brief thoroughbred and harness meets - the Rickmans' plan suggests 21 days, MJC-Rosecroft's 20 days - presumably in the summer, and betting on races simulcast from other tracks the rest of the year.
Attended by about 250 people, the hearing was the first public step toward what could result in the return of horse racing to Western Maryland. The commission will hold another hearing on the matter in November or December, and then probably decide a month or two later whether or not to grant a license, its chairman John Franzone said.
Opposition revolved around environmental issues, objections to gambling and threats to the quality of life. Proponents focused on the economic impact of creating jobs and attracting tourists. They also recalled fond memories of attending races at the Cumberland fairgrounds, where horses ran seasonally from 1921 to 1958.
"We had one heckuva good time," John Ankeney, an 80-year-old resident of Cumberland, said of the old Fairgo track. "I miss it, and I'd like to have it back."
Georgene McLaughlin, a horse lover who lives in tiny Oldtown, said that a track and year-round betting facility would keep Western Maryland residents from gambling elsewhere, especially at Charles Town Races in West Virginia.
Plus, she said, she's tired of seeing young people leave the county in search of employment.
"The more jobs we have in this county, the better," McLaughlin said.
A cross-section of the business community favors construction of a horse track for economic development reasons, said Bud Willetts, executive director of the Allegany Chamber of Commerce. He said that he polled his 575 members on the question of a track in the county, and that 80 percent of the respondents liked the idea.
Still, the most passionate voices at the hearing spoke in bitter opposition to the proposed track.
John N. Bambacus, the mayor of Frostburg, said his community of 9,000 residents already suffered from "major water supply and distribution problems. ... Do we want to provide water to homes with failing wells, or do we want to supply a racetrack?"
Robin Gorrell, Frostburg's commissioner of public works, said that a horse track with limited racing was merely a guise for an off-track betting parlor.
"I don't feel this is about a racetrack," she said. "It's about off-track betting, and it's about gambling."
And a majority of residents who spoke denounced gambling.
John C. Sullivan, a retired lawyer from Frostburg, said it would result in the "demoralization of the town itself."
Steve Schuessler, pastor of the LaVale Assembly of God church, said it was a "temptation I believe better left in eastern Maryland."
David A. Brigham, who lives in Little Orleans, requested that the commissioners reject the Rickman proposal because it threatens the quality of life. Brighman heads a group formed to fight the track called Citizens Against The Racecourse.
"This beautiful area of the state deserves to be protected, to be left as unspoiled as possible," Brigham said.
Of the residents in the eastern part of the county, he said, "most believe a racetrack and gambling venture in Little Orleans violate the sense of community and the lifestyle they desire."
Candi Mann, who lives in Little Orleans, was the youngest person to speak at the hearing. She is 14.
"I am representing the future generation of Little Orleans," she said. "You can't put a price on the beauty of this area. Don't take something away that took years to create and call it progress."
At its regular monthly meeting before the hearing, the commission approved Rickman as the potential new owner and operator of the Ocean Downs harness track. Rickman is buying the Eastern Shore track from Bally's. He said he anticipates closing on the deal Oct. 16.
The commission also heard from Marty Jacobs, general counsel of the Maryland Jockey Club, who reported on the reopening of the former Poor Jimmy's off-track-betting parlor in Cecil County.
Remodeled and reopened Sept. 15, the renamed Northeast Racing and Sports Club in its first nine days accepted 45 percent more wagers than the same period a year before, Jacobs said.
The commissioner C. Frank Hopkins, one of Poor Jimmy's biggest critics, said: "The place is elegant. The food is wonderful, and it's priced for the neighborhood. Everybody's happy with it."