S-l-o-t-s may spell end for commercial bingo

Gambling: Promoters in Arundel worry approval of machines might lure customers and put them out of business.

December 02, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

B-12, I-21, B-6, N-32, I-25 ...

During a recent night at Bingo World in Linthicum, three sisters from Glen Burnie - Sandy, Donna and Brenda - play nearly 100 cards between them.

"This is our time out: no work, no kids, no husbands," says Sandy Turner, 44, a once-a-week regular at the commercial bingo hall, where the smells of French fries and cigarette smoke hang in the air.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun provided the incorrect location for Bingo World. It is in Brooklyn Park.

Like a hopeful handful of the more than 400 other players, the sisters are just one call from winning bingo.

Commercial bingo operators, on the other hand, worry that they're one call from losing their game. They are waiting to see if the state approves slot machines as a way to bring in needed revenue.

Maryland's for-profit bingo, a vestige of the last century that is unique outside Nevada and Indian reservations, will be hard-pressed to survive against Maryland slots, they say.

"It's like a nuclear bomb going off," said Edward O. Wayson Jr., an Annapolis lobbyist who represents the county's parlors and whose family has run bingo games for decades.

"There's life after a nuclear bomb, though."

There are other big decisions on the table as well. Anne Arundel - home to nearly half of the state's commercial halls - may raise its tax rate on bingo.

The county's leaders also must decide whether to allow a linked, big-stakes game among the county's three halls.

None of those may matter if the General Assembly approves slots.

"I would think that [slots] would pretty much put professional bingo out of business," said Mary Baldridge, the chairwoman of the Anne Arundel Amusement License Commission, which oversees for-profit bingo.

The game survived when the state banned slots in 1968. It remains alive in Anne Arundel, Calvert and Washington counties. Three halls operate in Anne Arundel - in Laurel, Linthicum and Wayson's Corner in South County - two in Calvert and two in Washington.

Tough competition

Buses come from as far as Virginia, Delaware and Washington to the Arundel halls. While other states and Maryland counties allow private companies to run commercial games, they require at least some charity involvement. Not in these halls.

The Wynn family, which runs the behemoth Las Vegas-based Mirage Resorts Inc., opened Wayson's Bingo in the early 1960s. It is now a Wayson family business and, like the other halls, has stumbled upon tough competition for the gambling dollar.

The way Wayson tells it, first came Keno. When the Maryland Lottery introduced the bingo-like game in 1993, the bingo halls felt the pinch.

In 1995, Delaware approved slots, and the pinch grew tighter.

"We haven't done well since," Wayson said.

Anne Arundel's county council explored abolishing the game three years ago but relented and opted for increased regulation. Gradually, the game has recovered from the changes.

The amount of tax money collected from Maryland commercial bingo halls last fiscal year - nearly $712,000 - exceeded every year since 1998, according to data from the state comptroller's office.

Future of the game

Randy Clemens, the general manager at Bingo World since it reopened in 1987, says his hall makes more money than it did a few years ago but from fewer people. Like the other bingo managers, he wonders about the future of the game.

John Cameron's family business bought Daily Double Bingo in Laurel last year, and he's already looking across the street and pondering.

His hall sits across Route 198 from Laurel Park, a horse racing track and proposed site for slot machines. Daily Double is his first venture outside Canada, where Cameron said he watched the proliferation of slot machines devastate the bingo business.

"If Mrs. Jones plays bingo four times a week, she's going to now come to bingo once or twice a week, and go to the slots once or twice a week," he said. If that happens, "I've lost 50 percent of my business."

Bingo operators say they would like to operate slot machines, but they haven't put forward any such proposal.

A tax increase would hurt less and would be limited to Anne Arundel. The county executive has discussed raising the county's amusement tax to 10 percent from 7.5 percent. Calvert County and Chesapeake Beach, which is in Calvert, tax at 0.5 percent and 1 percent, respectively. Washington taxes at 3 percent.

Anne Arundel's bingo practitioners are careful not to complain about county regulation, but they would like to loosen some rules.

They made a preliminary proposal last month to the county's Amusement License Commission to abolish the limits that prevent one evening's giveaways from topping $15,000. (Calvert County has no limit.) They also want to hold a simultaneous game involving Anne Arundel's three halls. The prize could be as large as $100,000, Clemens said.

`Competitive world'

"It's a different competitive world," Wayson said. "You've got to have more tools, you've got to be more flexible, and you've got to be able to move quickly."

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