Inner Harbor glitters as Md. gambling prize

March 05, 2004|By Greg Garland and Scott Calvert | Greg Garland and Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's Inner Harbor, with its upscale attractions that draw thousands of visitors every day, has emerged as one of the biggest prizes for the gambling industry as Maryland lawmakers debate the legalization of slot machines.

But it's a prize that could remain out of reach - unless promoters can overcome the resistance and objections of the mayor, nearby residents and others who worry that casino-style gambling would change the look and feel of the renowned tourist attraction.

The gentrified waterfront district sits in the center of a metropolitan market of 2.5 million people.

"They've always pushed the Inner Harbor as a family destination, and it strikes me that you might lose some of that," said Robert E. Carpenter, an economics professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "I think it's legitimate to think about how that [gambling] might change the character of the Inner Harbor."

The Inner Harbor has been a potent symbol of urban renaissance since the early 1980s, when the National Aquarium and the two Harborplace pavilions opened.

Millions of tourists - and residents - flocked to see a dazzling public space that years earlier had been a maze of decrepit wharves. Word of the harbor's revival traveled around the world as cities such as Rotterdam, Netherlands, and Barcelona, Spain, sent delegations in hopes of copying its success. According to one estimate, Harborplace attracted 11 million visitors in 2001.

`Market will bear it'

Del. Clarence Davis, an East Baltimore Democrat, said he supports slots at the harbor as long as horse-racing tracks, including Pimlico Race Course in Northwest Baltimore, get them as well.

"I think the market will bear it, simply because Baltimore is a tourism town and you're looking at capturing entertainment dollars from tourists with a downtown facility," Davis said.

But some question whether the Inner Harbor would be able to retain its family friendly identity if casino-style gambling is introduced. Mayor Martin O'Malley and some city lawmakers say they oppose slots there for exactly that reason.

Despite their reservations, the slots bill approved by the Senate would almost guarantee that at least one gambling license would go to a site at or near the Inner Harbor. The bill is now in the House, where its future is uncertain. Speaker Michael E. Busch has said that he intends to defer to the wishes of local delegations in deciding where slots would be allowed.

Several harbor-area homeowner associations are opposed to bringing casino-style gambling to the Inner Harbor. But organizations that represent downtown business and tourism interests haven't taken a position on the issue.

"It's an important issue for anyone who lives and works in the city," said Nancy C. Hinds, communications director for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.

But she said the group is not prepared to comment without first conducting an analysis. She said the association will do that once it gets an indication the slots bill is gaining momentum.

"At such time, we will take a serious look at the impact slots would have on the Inner Harbor as a [tourist] destination," Hinds said.

Gene Bracken, a spokesman for the Greater Baltimore Committee, said the leadership of the civic organization is "reviewing the potential implications and impact of slots at the Inner Harbor, but we haven't arrived at a position."

Robert C. Embry, a former Baltimore housing commissioner who heads the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation, said he is opposed to slots. But he said it could be a bad or good thing for the harbor depending on details such as location and impact on traffic.

Despite his doubts about slots, Embry does not share O'Malley's view that gambling would be incompatible with the harbor because of the large number of families who go there.

"I don't know that people who go to gamble are less wholesome than the average person," Embry said.

Powerful interests

Developers are quietly circling, ready to pounce at the opportunity to obtain one of the lucrative licenses, according to lawmakers.

Davis, the East Baltimore delegate, said he has heard that H&S Bakery owner and developer John Paterakis Sr. and Orioles owner and trial lawyer Peter G. Angelos are interested. Davis said he knows nothing about specific locations the men are considering.

"These are two significant citizens of Maryland who give a lot to this state," Davis said. "I wouldn't mind seeing one or both of them owning a facility. Both of them would make extraordinary contributions to the community."

Neither Paterakis nor Angelos responded to requests for interviews.

Angelos has demonstrated an interest in casino-style gambling before: He made a presentation before the owners of Rosecroft Raceway when his son was bidding to buy it late last year. And Paterakis is a longtime advocate of legalizing casino-style gambling in Maryland.

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