State Fair presses for share of profits

Timonium agreed to forgo slots for part of revenue

March 29, 2003|By Greg Garland and Stephanie Desmon | Greg Garland and Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Despite what appeared to be the start of a lobbying effort this week, the head of a nonprofit group that runs the Timonium Racetrack at the Maryland State Fairgrounds says that group isn't campaigning to get slot machines there.

However, Howard M. Mosner Jr., president of the Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society Inc., said the state and the racing industry need to honor their promise to give the fair a small portion of the money from slots operations at other racetracks.

The Ehrlich administration's initial plan called for slot machines at Pimlico, Laurel Park and Rosecroft, and a track planned for Allegany County.

Although Timonium wasn't included, the fair was supposed to get about $12 million a year in slots revenue from the other tracks.

That was cut to $5.5 million in the governor's revised slots plan. The Senate later rewrote the bill to eliminate funding for Timonium and Ocean Downs.

The maneuver angered Mosner and other fair officials, who said they had agreed to forgo pushing for the machines at Timonium in exchange for a small percentage of the slots revenue from the other tracks.

"We gave our word to the governor early on, when they said they didn't want [slots] here, nor did the industry," Mosner said. "We said, `We can live with that - if you give us a percentage.' Everybody agreed to it, and then it didn't happen."

The Senate has proposed increasing a state grant the fair gets from $500,000 to $1 million a year. But Mosner said that isn't enough to pay for renovations and other improvements that fair officials want to pursue.

He said he would be satisfied if the $5.5 million a year that Ehrlich proposed in his revised bill is restored.

"There's $1.5 billion in [slots], and to think that there wasn't a little bit in there for us is disappointing," Mosner said.

Mosner's group circulated a fact sheet to legislators this week detailing how experts regard Timonium as a better location for slots - one that is more easily accessible to the public - than a track such as Pimlico in Baltimore.

But Mosner told Baltimore County's House delegation yesterday that his goal is to get the funds the fair was promised - not slot machines at Timonium.

"God knows, you people might not even pass the bill at all," he said. "But if it does, include us."

Del. Joseph J. Minnick, chairman of the Baltimore County delegation, said he's sympathetic.

"I wouldn't object to them getting a little piece of the action," Minnick said."My constituents feel the racetracks are getting too big a piece of the pie."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a slots opponents, has questioned why Ehrlich's slots plan excluded racetracks in more affluent areas - the State Fairgrounds in Timonium and Ocean Downs near Ocean City.

Baltimore County's delegation and other elected officials there are on record as opposing slots at the fairgrounds.

They say a racetrack casino wouldn't fit in with the area, or with the family-oriented activities at the fairgrounds, including craft shows and regular events by youths in 4-H and FFA.

"The fact is that it's a family venue," said Frank Regan, president of the Greater Timonium Community Council.

The council is an umbrella group that represents about 40 neighborhoods in the Timonium and Lutherville areas.

Regan said he surveyed members of the council's executive committee, and they are also concerned about the crime and traffic problems a racetrack casino could bring.

"We're unanimously opposed to slots at Timonium," he said.

Baltimore County Council member T. Bryan McIntire said fair officials have repeatedly assured him they have no interest in bringing slots to Timonium.

"If they've changed their philosophy, it's news to me," he said.

McIntire said fair officials are justifiably upset about funds being cut from the Senate bill and appear to be using the threat of pushing to get slots as leverage to have the money restored.

Mosner conceded chances are remote that slots would ever be approved for Timonium, given the opposition of Ehrlich and local elected officials.

Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns Pimlico and Laurel Park, said it wouldn't make economic sense to allow slots at both Pimlico and Timonium.

Timonium holds races only eight days a year, Capps said, while betting takes place year-round at Pimlico.

"It's not been a gaming site," Capps said. "I think fundamentally that's the issue."

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