Resort sticks to anti-slots stance

Ocean City mayor fears gambling at nearby track would harm town's image

February 22, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- With debate on legalizing slots bogged down in the Maryland Senate over a plan to allow the machines at the Ocean Downs harness racing track, business and political leaders here say they remain solid in their opposition to gambling -- at the beach or at its doorstep.

The proposal, backed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, would allow up to 1,000 of the gambling devices at the track a few miles from the vacation spot that annually draws 8 million visitors -- a move opponents say runs counter to the resort's family-friendly image.

"We are convinced that we can do what's right for Ocean City, what's needed for Maryland, without gambling," said Ocean City Mayor James N. Mathias Jr., a Baltimore native. "We've had pretty much the same position since the 1970s -- it's not worth it for Ocean City to trade the cow to get the beans," Mathias said.

Leaders of the resort's major business groups say they have held firm, even as lawmakers in Annapolis wrangle over a larger plan for permitting slots at Maryland racetracks and other locations.

"We don't want slots anywhere in Maryland, including Ocean City or Ocean Downs," said Lauren Taylor, president-elect of the Chamber of Commerce. "It's bad economic development that cannibalizes small businesses. If it gets as close as Ocean Downs, it'll be like a cancer that keeps spreading."

Surveys sent to members of the Chamber of Commerce and the city's hotel-restaurant association showed that nearly two-thirds of those responding opposed gambling in Ocean City.

Opinion seems less one-sided when it comes to the question of slots at the track a few miles outside of town. Board members of the hotel, motel and restaurant association continue to oppose slots, but they acknowledge that only about 30 percent of 224 opinion surveys mailed to members were returned. The Chamber of Commerce had a similar response to its survey.

"If we have something shoved down our throats, we'd fight to the death to keep it out of Ocean City," Taylor said. Other key business leaders say they'll resist efforts by William J. Rickman Jr., the Montgomery County businessman who owns Ocean Downs, to win General Assembly approval for slots at the track.

"We'd like to see the governor stick to the original plan from a year ago that did not have gambling in Worcester County or anywhere on the Eastern Shore," said Michael James, general manager of the Carousel Hotel and chairman of the Ocean City Tourism Commission.

Rickman continues to lobby at the General Assembly and in Worcester County for approval to put slots at the harness track, which he says has been a consistent money loser for years.

Rickman has noted his company-financed private poll of 600 Worcester residents as evidence of local support for slots.

But Matthew A. Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University who reviewed the poll at The Sun's request, said the survey was flawed because it didn't include questions exploring possible negative effects of gambling.

"If you're going to have a balanced poll, you have to ask those questions," Crenson said. "The way it's designed, there is no opportunity for anyone to express anything negative. To be balanced, it would have to give people the opportunity to express some of the down side."

Rickman, who owns an off-track betting parlor in Cambridge and holds a license to build a track in Allegany County that could also be eligible for slots, has agreed not to build a hotel at the Ocean Downs track. He also agreed not to offer enticements such as reduced-priced drinks and meals that could threaten Ocean City's hospitality businesses.

Ehrlich has proposed 15,500 slot machines at four Maryland racetracks and at two locations along the Interstate 95 corridor. Last week, Democratic members of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee proposed changes, including adding the Ocean Downs track.

The Worcester County Commission has not taken sides, but members insist that any slots plan at Ocean Downs must be approved by a referendum vote.

Slots opponents such as Mathias say they are banking on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s continued opposition to slots on the Eastern Shore.

"The story continues to change up there [in Annapolis]," Mathias said. "But the tide hasn't shifted in Ocean City. `No' still means no."

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