In Cecil, activists sound slots warning

Public meeting focuses on dangers of gambling

March 21, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

PORT DEPOSIT - A state proposal to put a casino-style slots den in nearby Perryville was condemned at a "Freedom from Slots" public hearing by a dozen speakers who said it would harm the quality of life in Cecil County.

Opponents of the plan, including politicians, representatives of church organizations and anti-gambling groups, contended slots would boost the county's crime rate, lead to more suicides and cause more divorces and abuse of spouses and children, while sapping the region of its economic vitality.

About 300 Cecil County residents attended the meeting Friday night at Pleasant View Baptist Church just outside this Susquehanna River town. The meeting was called as part of an effort to organize a citizens rally in Annapolis on Tuesday to oppose a slots bill that has already cleared the Senate. The audience, which nearly filled the church, sat quietly for 2 1/2 hours, except for an occasional amen.

Gambling is more dangerous than the West Nile virus, which has infected 115 victims and resulted in 15 deaths since 1999, said Kim Roman of Glen Burnie. Roman is co-chairwoman of the anti-gambling group NoCasiNo Maryland.

She said gambling would result in "75 to 100 additional suicides in Maryland every single year."

"I would like you to call the governor and say, `I'm a registered Republican and I didn't vote for you for slots,'" Roman advised the audience.

Valerie Lorenz said gambling might start out as something fun, but it becomes addictive and can ruin lives and destroy families.

Lorenz is head of the nonprofit Compulsive Gambling Center Inc. in Baltimore, which treats compulsive gamblers.

She warned that slots gambling is no longer a nickel-and-dime operation because machines take $5 and $10 bills. "A person can lose their entire paycheck in one evening."

Aaron Meisner, coordinating chairman of stopslotsmary, said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is stretching the truth when he says that polls show that Maryland wants slots.

Meisner said that although 62 percent of the citizens surveyed favored slots, 87 percent of those people said they never intend to play the machines. He said that nearly 90 percent of those polled said they didn't want gambling casinos in their neighborhoods.

"Gambling is being sold as a no-cost way of bringing in $800 million a year," he told the gathering. "The governor calls it a no-brainer."

"But there are no free lunches," he continued, insisting that slots would result in increased domestic violence, theft, divorce, personal bankruptcy and suicide.

If the General Assembly approves slots, Meisner said, it would be selling out the state to the gambling industry. "The industry is regulated by the state. The only way it can grow is to petition the state for more machines."

He pointed out that last year's slots bill called for 10,500 machines. The current legislation seeks 15,500 slots. "We've got expansion and we don't even have it yet."

"This is bad for my family in Baltimore City," said Meisner, who lives three blocks from Pimlico Race Course, one of the three horseracing tracks in Maryland slated for slots. "It's bad for your family in Cecil County and it's bad for every family in the state."

"Amen," was the response from about a half-dozen people in the audience.

Under a plan approved by the Senate, a casino would be built on a 130-acre site off of Route 222 near Interstate 95 in Perryville, said David Thompson of Elkton, who organized the church meeting.

He said the proposal caught the community by surprise. "We were asleep at the switch," he said. "We should have been paying more attention to what was going on in Annapolis."

During an interview earlier in the day, Thompson said, "I can't say anything good about slots. They lead to high crime rates. I talked to a lady this week, I think she was in Mississippi. She told me about her brother-in-law who gambled away his home. He tried, in desperation, to make it up by robbing a bank. He got caught. This is a real story. This is what gambling can do."

Thompson said casinos "act like a big vacuum that sucks the wealth out of a community. Money that would normally go to other businesses is lost to the slots industry."

The Rev. Harold Phillips of Pleasant View Baptist Church advised the audience to go to Annapolis on Tuesday for a show of force as the House Ways and Means Committee holds a hearing on the slots bill. He said a bus would leave the church at 8:30 Tuesday morning.

He also called for a letter-writing campaign to delegates in the district. "Let us start ringing their phones," he said. "That's what they understand."

Phillips said that according to FBI statistics, there was a 467 percent crime rate increase in Atlantic City, N.J., in the first nine years after gambling was allowed. "If that doesn't blow your head off," he said, "you don't have one on."

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