Slots debate divides Dorchester County

State senator gathers input from constituents during public hearing

March 16, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CAMBRIDGE -- If state Sen. Richard F. Colburn was hoping for a consensus about whether to legalize slot machines here or anywhere else in Dorchester County, he didn't get it yesterday at a hastily called public hearing.

An overflow crowd in a County Council meeting room was packed with activists sporting "No Slots" buttons who have been fighting to keep gambling out of this Choptank River community of 11,000.

Equally strident was a smaller group of slots supporters who urged the county and state to get a share of gambling revenue they see leaving every day in tourist buses headed for slots emporiums in Delaware.

The Dorchester Chamber of Commerce, whose directors announced their support for slots last month, drew sharp rebukes from other business leaders who complained that only eight board members had voted, barely enough for a quorum.

Supporters and foes alike complained that the hearing was scheduled less than a week ago, and that it should have been held at night in a larger venue to allow more people to attend.

Colburn was blindsided three weeks ago when his Eastern Shore county was included in a list of proposed gambling sites. He pleaded successfully with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Senate leaders to have the county removed from the list -- a move he acknowledges produced its share of negative phone calls and angry e-mails.

The senator says he'll take "a wait-and-see attitude" before deciding whether to ask the House of Delegates to amend the bill to put the county back in before it takes a vote.

One of Colburn's colleagues in the House, Del. Rudolph C. Cane, also came to listen yesterday. Cane, a Democrat, said later that he's against bringing slots to the county. "I don't think it's best for our community," he said.

Slots supporters continue to push the new Hyatt Regency and an off-track betting parlor owned by developer William Rickman Jr. as possible sites for slots in Cambridge. Another possibility identified in a study by state economic development officials is a 46-acre site near the Cambridge airport.

Charles Parker, an Eastern Shore native who retired from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. 10 years ago, said he travels frequently to gambling centers such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City, N.J. Parker supports casinos and slots in Maryland and said he'd like having one or both in Cambridge.

"Delaware has slots, West Virginia has slots and Pennsylvania wants them," Parker said. "If we offered full-blown casinos, we'd have something the others don't."

But Ricky Travers, whose family grocery has operated in the downtown business district for 60 years, told Colburn that a resurgent center city doesn't need slots revenue.

"We're building a solid base here. Just ride downtown and look at the businesses that are coming," Travers said.

G. Philip Feldman, a former Chamber of Commerce president who heads an insurance company, said he conducted a survey of some of the largest employers in Cambridge and found solid opposition to slots.

Critics questioned Colburn yesterday about how Dorchester was included without his knowledge in a slots proposal approved by a Senate committee.

"Let me assure you I have done everything possible to find out who wanted Dorchester in the slots bill in the first place," Colburn said. "I've asked everyone I know, but I don't think it's in my job description to do detective work."

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