D.C.-area county debates gambling

State's slots may depend on support from leaders in Prince George's County

National Harbor site contentious

February 29, 2004|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

OXON HILL -- If you look closely from the banks of the Potomac River here, past bulldozers and earth movers on ground that has been scraped bare, you can see the distinctive profile of the Washington Monument rising in the distance.

Some say this site in southern Prince George's County -- where an ambitious $2 billion waterfront hotel, shopping and entertainment complex known as National Harbor is planned -- would be a fine site for a casino-style gambling venue; others find that idea appalling.

The developers say only that they are monitoring developments in Annapolis and won't say whether they are interested in casino-style gambling. But key Prince George's legislative leaders say they would prefer to have gambling at National Harbor rather than at nearby Rosecroft Raceway, another potential site.

A bonanza awaits whoever gets a gambling license in southern Prince George's, gambling experts say, because it's close to Washington and its Virginia suburbs. That has given the county's political leaders a prominent voice in the white-hot statewide debate about expanding gambling and, some say, has put Prince George's in a position to decide the fate of slot machine legislation in Maryland.

"Unless Prince George's County supports slots, there will not be slots," asserts Wayne M. Clark, a political consultant who is a lobbyist for the County Council. "As Prince George's County goes, so go slots."

But Clark said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is rapidly losing support for his signature legislative issue because he has made little effort to sell the county's civic and political leaders on the merits of his slots proposal.

Indeed, many in this predominantly African-American county express resentment that it seems taken for granted that Prince George's County will be the site for one or more casino-style gambling establishments -- with little local control over those facilities and insufficient local revenues to offset their social costs.

The deep divisions in Prince George's were reflected in Friday's Senate vote to approve the governor's slots proposal and send it on to the House of Delegates. The county's eight senators split evenly.

County Executive Jack B. Johnson says he opposes the Senate's version of the slots bill, which was shepherded through that chamber by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat, on Friday. The County Council also voted unanimously to go on record as opposing the proposal.

"It looks like it's designed to make us a big gambling haven," Johnson said. "I don't want the county to be a gambling haven."

A position paper that outlines the county executive's position says that slots "disproportionately prey upon lower-incomeindividuals. It is immoral for the state to exploit the false hope of the poor in order to fund education, or any other government program."

`Family atmosphere'

Johnson and others say they are offended that slots were ruled out for what have been described as "family-oriented," mostly white communities while Prince George's County has received no such consideration.

"We've got families in southern Prince George's County, and we want to protect our family atmospheres, too," said Donna F. Edwards, a community activist and slots opponent who lives in Fort Washington, near National Harbor and Rosecroft Raceway.

She said Prince George's legislators who support the slots legislation aren't serving the interests of the county's residents.

"I think the political leadership in Prince George's County is bankrupt on this issue," Edwards said. "They've rolled over and said it's OK to thrust gambling establishments on our community when no other place will take them. ... What I see is a cabal of African-American political leadership, developers and gambling interests who are willing to balance the state's budget off the backs of the poor and the vulnerable."

The Rev. C. Anthony Muse, pastor of the 3,000-member Ark of Safety Christian Church in Oxon Hill, said he is troubled that many of Prince George's legislative leaders in the House and Senate remain "on the bandwagon" for slots.

He noted an economic analysis done for the Prince George's County Business Roundtable that estimates potentially enormous costs -- running into tens of millions of dollars each year -- related to problem gambling, crime and social ills.

"If they won't accept it in Ocean City, why are we accepting it in Prince George's?" Muse asked. "If this is such an economic asset, why are we the only ones pushing for it?"

He said that Johnson's opposition to slots should carry the same weight as that of elected officials from Ocean City and elsewhere who were able to get their communities removed from the slots legislation.

Growing opposition

Del. Marvin E. Holmes Jr. said he believes that the growing opposition to slots at the local level is causing some Prince George's legislators who had been on the fence -- and even some slots supporters -- to rethink their position.

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