Md. restaurant owners decide to switch sides, get behind slots effort

Association's members think state needs funds to balance the budget

October 10, 2003|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

As momentum builds for casino-style gambling in Maryland, a trade group representing restaurant owners has dropped its long-held opposition and now supports bringing slot machines into the state.

Marcia Harris, the president of the Maryland Restaurant Association, said yesterday that the group reversed its position based on a survey of its members and a determination that revenue from slots may be the best way to balance the state budget.

The association was one of only a few business groups to oppose Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposal this year to allow Wal-Mart-sized slots casinos at four horse racing tracks.

Fred Rosenthal, who is on the group's board of directors, said concerns about the impact slots might have on their businesses were eased after a delegation visited restaurants in Dover, Del., where there is a major racetrack casino.

"There was some loss of business in the beginning," he said. "But, in the long run, over the past several years, they have not been negatively affected."

The experience of restaurant owners in Delaware raised issues - such as racetrack casinos offering free or below-cost food and beverages - that could be addressed in Maryland slots legislation, Rosenthal said.

"When legislation is put forward, we're asking for a seat at the table so we can have input" into the way a slots program is implemented, he said.

Added Harris, "We're going to try to be smarter than the average bear and figure out a way to protect the revenue stream of restaurants while boosting the revenues of the state. The state won't come out ahead if they make $300 million out of slots but lose $300 million of sales tax revenues."

Barbara Knickelbein, co-chairwoman of the anti-slots group NOcasiNO Maryland, said she was "very surprised" at the restaurant association's decision. She noted that the group had been active in anti-slots efforts since 1994 and helped to fund the push this year.

"The statistics are mounting around the country as to the cannibalization of existing businesses," Knickelbein said. "Why do they think it's not going to happen here?"

Harris said her group, which represents more than 3,000 restaurants, had a change of heart because circumstances have changed. She said members are concerned about the state's budget woes, with shortfalls between revenues and expenditures predicted to reach $1 billion in a little more than a year, out of an overall budget of more than $22 billion.

"The information we now have is that this is the best thing for the state and we should get behind it," Harris said. "It's the best of the currently available options."

She said that the restaurant association supports limited, slot-only emporiums but not full-scale casinos.

Harris said that the association does not anticipate seeking approval for slots at restaurants unless they are broadly approved at businesses throughout the state. She said she sees no political support for "letting slots run rampant."

Melvin Thompson, the association's vice president of government relations, said that 63 percent of members who were surveyed said they favored some form of expanded gambling in Maryland and that 77 percent believed slots would be approved.

Harris said the group's board of directors voted 47-3 to back slots-only gambling expansion.

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