As others race to opt out, Cecil embraces slots bill

Leaders see few ill effects in a site close to Delaware but far from communities

March 08, 2004|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

PERRYVILLE - As community after community scrambles to keep from being one of the potential sites for a casino-style slots den, leaders in the Northeast Maryland county of Cecil say they would welcome the devices if the state chooses to legalize them.

"Logically, if you want to make money, you need to put the slots close to where the people are going," said Nelson K. Bolender, president of Cecil County's Board of Commissioners. "The people are going to Delaware. So it's logical the slots should be in Cecil County."

Cecil - Maryland's last stop on the road to Delaware - remains one of just three jurisdiction permitted to have nonracetrack slot machine facilities under legislation the state Senate approved last month. Baltimore City and Prince George's County are the others.

But Cecil is far different from the other two locations. Baltimore and Prince George's are Maryland's only majority black jurisdictions, and both have large pockets of urban poverty. Cecil is still mostly rural and full of farms, although it is growing quickly as the suburbs of Baltimore, Wilmington, Del., and Philadelphia push outward.

The most likely locations for slots facilities in Cecil are just off of Interstate 95, far away from dense residential communities - either near the Perryville interchange or a few miles up the highway in Elkton, where a $100 million casino project was once envisioned but never built. Slots dens in Baltimore and Prince George's are talked about much closer to neighborhoods or as part of large tourist destinations.

Most significantly, there has been a difference in the lawmakers' response to slots. Politicians in both Baltimore and Prince George's have been far more outspoken in their opposition to slots - particularly after other, more affluent communities successfully exempted themselves from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s gambling plan.

Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson has written to his delegation in Annapolis, asking that they remove the county altogether from consideration. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley has been lukewarm to the idea of slots in the city, and has said if they come they should be confined to Pimlico Race Course.

By contrast, lawmakers representing Cecil have mostly been supportive of the idea of slots coming to the county, provided there are adequate assurances that the local government will get a healthy share of the gambling revenue. Many acknowledge it makes sense to position a slots facility just short of the Delaware state line, discouraging Marylanders from driving to Delaware's racetrack slots facilities to gamble.

The Senate legislation - permitting 15,500 slot machines at three racetrack and three nontrack locations - is waiting for a hearing in a House of Delegates committee. That committee, which killed Ehrlich's gambling proposal last year, is not expected to take up the slots measure for at least two weeks, and its chairman has said the bill will likely undergo significant change.

Both Nancy Jacobs and E.J. Pipkin, the state senators whose districts include Cecil, voted for the slots bill.

"I've received very little flak from the people in Cecil County," said Jacobs, a Republican who also represents Harford County.

Jacobs said that if slots legislation approved by the Senate had included both Cecil and Harford as eligible counties for gambling - as Ehrlich's original bill had recommended - she would have opposed the measure.

"There's a very different feeling in Harford about slots than in Cecil," Jacobs said. "I think a big part of it is that people in Cecil have been living with gambling for a lot of years, so it doesn't cause the same concerns."

In Cecil and seven of Maryland's eight other Eastern Shore counties, slot machines are legal at sites such as American Legion posts and Veterans of Foreign Wars chapters. They're generally permitted five machines for each location, and half the proceeds must be donated to charitable causes.

Cecil also is home to one of Maryland's few off-track betting parlors, in North East. Long known as Poor Jimmy's, it was refurbished and renamed 3 1/2 years ago as the Northeast Racing and Sports Club.

There was even a serious push in 1996 by a Mississippi-based casino operator to build a $100 million resort and entertainment complex in Elkton, at the interchange of Interstate 95 and Route 279 - the last Maryland exit before Delaware.

The proposal to build the Isle of Capri Entertainment Resort eventually fizzled, particularly after then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening pledged to block any effort to bring slots or other casino-type gambling to Maryland.

That 14-acre site remains vacant, and several lobbyists and lawmakers suggested that a slots facility might be sought for that location.

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