Racetrack investors taking gamble on slots legalization

July 18, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SINCE NOBODY bets millions at the racetrack intending to take a financial bath, everybody wonders if the Canadian conglomerate Magna Entertainment Corp. wagered big-time on Pimlico and Laurel this week with the sound of slot machines ca-chinging merrily somewhere around the next turn.

Robert Ehrlich hopes so, and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend hopes not. One of them will be the next governor of Maryland, and will have some say in the matter. But the Magna folks are forking over about $50 million for a couple of racecourses with facilities decaying and purses falling depressingly behind tracks in nearby states. You walk into Pimlico on a normal day and a few thousand hardcore folks are there, many of them huddled in the shadows on little beach chairs, staring numbly at television simulcasts, oblivious to all around them, while outdoors there's a sea of about 14,000 empty seats.

So, it's hard to imagine the Magna people tossed so much money around without figuring slots into the equation.

In Delaware, and more recently in West Virginia, slot machines have rejuvenated the racing business and poured millions into civic projects. Last year, for example, gamblers spent $3.5 billion on slot machines at Delaware Park and two nearby harness tracks. Tens of millions in slots money have been funneled into that state's racing industry, and millions more into refurbished schools and expanded police efforts. Every day, they thank heaven for all those cars filling their racetrack parking lots -- uncountable numbers of them with Maryland license plates.

Around here, we know why Maryland has balked at slots. Parris Glendening, having been caught taking illegal money from racetrack interests, had to distance himself from them. So Glendening declared gambling was bad, conveniently overlooking that his state's various lottery games make the government the biggest bookmaker operator around.

The Republican Ehrlich says he'd back slots at the tracks. It's simple economics: Rejuvenate racing and simultaneously raise millions for do-gooder civic projects -- particularly in this time of tight budgets. But the Democrat Townsend, with none of Glendening's unseemly racetrack baggage, nonetheless says she's just as reluctant as her old boss to allow slots.

"She's looked at a bunch of studies on this," Townsend spokesman Mike Morrill was saying the day after Pimlico and Laurel were sold. Townsend, flitting around the state, was unavailable for comment. "The studies show a consistent pattern: When you introduce slot machines and casinos, you hurt small businesses, you increase crime and you create gambling addicts."

There is a potential flaw in this, which Morrill admits. Though these are studies of "slots and casinos," Maryland is not talking about casinos, and not talking about imposing new facilities in existing outside environments. The talk is about putting slot machines at racetracks, which are places where gambling already exists.

"We understand," Morrill said, "that [slots] are an easy source of revenue. But we think the costs outweigh the benefits."

Just to be glib for a moment, let's take a look at Pimlico. Would slot machines bring crime? That area, around Northwest Baltimore's lower Park Heights Avenue, is already riddled by crime and drugs and some of the most dreadful housing -- some abandoned, some not -- in the state. New racetrack action means new jobs. People who have jobs don't have to commit crimes for a living.

Would it hurt surrounding business? Those businesses surrounding Pimlico aren't exactly tourist meccas. They're neighborhood establishments that depend on people who live in the area. Nobody's naive enough to think that Pimlico bettors are going to wander off the track and blithely traipse through the surrounding area looking for local charms on which to spend money. But it's hard to see how such an already-depressed area gets hurt.

Would it create gambling addicts? People who want to gamble will gamble. And it's hypocritical to run lottery games -- and to run constant commercials hyping those games -- and then complain that gambling can create addicts.

Obviously, the Magna people understand this. A lot of people like to take a chance with their money. It's an adult choice. Before this gubernatorial race is decided, Robert Ehrlich intends to make it a political choice, as well. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend may find herself looking like a prim schoolmarm telling everyone not to gamble, and forgetting that she's talking to adults, and not children.

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