Legislators' slots tours expose split communities

Many residents, businesses hold strong views on plan

October 21, 2003|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Ocean City Mayor James N. Mathias Jr. doesn't have to stroll far from his beachwear shop on the resort town's boardwalk to learn what people are thinking.

Visitors, townsfolk and business owners regularly pull Mathias aside to tell him what's on their minds. And lately, he says, the big issue is slot machines.

"The No. 1 unabashed and unsolicited thing they say to me is, `Please keep the [casino-style] gambling out of Ocean City,'" Mathias said.

It's a message a legislative panel studying slots is likely to hear today as well, as it tours the Eastern Shore.

Nobody here - or in other regions being considered for slots - seems keen on having a round-the-clock, Wal-Mart-size slots casino in their back yard, even those who are perfectly happy to see slots in someone else's neighborhood.

Lawmakers are running into stiff resistance as they crisscross Maryland checking out potential sites for slots emporiums.

Significant opposition, mostly from residents and community groups, has surfaced at proposed sites in Baltimore, Prince George's County, Timonium, Laurel, Cecil County, Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

Opinion is sharply divided among residents, politicians and business people in some communities.

In Ocean City, opposition to casino-style gambling runs so deep that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. left the Ocean Downs harness racing track out of an unsuccessful slots-at-tracks measure he proposed this year.

But this fall, as the House Ways and Means Committee conducts its statewide slots study, "everything is on the table," according to Del. Sheila E. Hixson, committee chairwoman. That includes considering slots at Ocean Downs or at an off-track betting parlor in Cambridge, the Montgomery County Democrat said.

Mathias said the primary concern in Ocean City is that gambling will siphon tourist dollars from restaurants, bars, hotels and other businesses.

And casino-style gambling, he contends, isn't a good fit at Ocean City. "We're a caramel popcorn, crab cake, french fry and pizza kind of town," he said. "People make money here the old-fashioned way. They roll up their sleeves, and they work hard."

Other areas of the state where slots have been proposed or rumored have generated strong opposition as well.

When House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch suggested that slots be considered at the nonprofit Maryland State Fairgrounds, it touched off howls of protest from Baltimore County legislators and local officials. State Sen. James Brochin, a Democrat who favors legalizing slots, says he will do "everything in my power to make sure slots never come to Timonium."

During a recent legislative hearing at Morgan State University, Brochin and other county officials told lawmakers that slots make more sense for Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

Their view wasn't shared by people who live near the track. Opponents took to the microphones to voice their objections to slots at Pimlico.

"One of the things people found out at the last hearing was that the only people who wanted slots at Pimlico were the people from Timonium," observed Busch. "The irony in this whole thing is that everybody wants to share in the revenues as long as the activity takes place in somebody else's community."

Yesterday, Brochin suggested placing a limited number of slot machines on the concourses at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, an idea that legislative leaders and the governor's office said they couldn't support.

The situation at Pimlico and Laurel Park is more complicated than in some areas.

Although slots foes dominated the public hearing at Morgan State, Hixson's committee heard from other interests that support slots when they visited Pimlico earlier that day.

Ronnie Footlick, chairwoman of Sinai Hospital, near Pimlico, told lawmakers that allowing slot machines at the track "represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redevelop our corner of Maryland."

Added William Peacock, a longtime Woodmere resident and vice president of the Northwest Baltimore Corp.: "To either disapprove slots or allow them elsewhere but not at this site is to place a dagger in our heart."

Even some slots opponents worry about the long-term economic viability of Pimlico and Laurel Park if they don't get slots.

Still, a coalition of five neighborhood associations opposes slots at Pimlico, saying in a written statement it wants the track to find a way to stay in business "without the introduction of electronic gambling."

The position is shared by the three delegates - Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, Nathaniel T. Oaks and Jill P. Carter - whose legislative district includes Pimlico.

The delegates say they are working to make sure that any slots legislation that includes Pimlico protects nearby neighborhoods. Among the demands: A $20 million annual allotment from slots for community improvements.

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