Harnessing ecology to slots

Environment: Ehrlich says expanded gambling can preserve horse farms, protecting rural areas - and the bay - from sprawl.

October 02, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

No slots means trouble for the Chesapeake Bay, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. claimed yesterday as he renewed his push for expanded gambling during a tour of a Cecil County horse farm.

Hoping to win environmentalists' support for his crusade, Ehrlich warned that the state's rural landscape would be choked by sprawling suburban development unless slots are allowed to fatten racing purses and keep horse farms in business.

"Without an investment in 20,200 horse farms, Maryland is going to look like that," Ehrlich said, pointing to a treeless cluster of vinyl-sided tract houses across the Delaware line. "That's not going to happen on my watch."

Ehrlich described an environmental domino effect: Without slots at racetracks, the horse industry will falter, farms will be sold to developers, sprawl will worsen and the bay will suffer.

Environmentalists were not immediately swayed.

"I'm frankly stunned that he would raise this argument," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the conservation group 1000 Friends of Maryland. "To try to hold Maryland's open space and the bay hostage for slots is, I think, an unfortunate tactic."

Susan Brown, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said that if Ehrlich is concerned about sprawl, he should invest in land preservation and transit and fully implement the Smart Growth program, which is aimed at curtailing sprawl.

"There's not much link between slots and sprawl, and there's a lot of links between these other issues," Brown said. "I think the environmental community would rather talk to the governor about those programs."

Ehrlich has made legalizing slot machines one of his administration's central initiatives, but he has been unable to get a bill through the House of Delegates. Ehrlich, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller nearly cemented a deal on Labor Day to put a proposal on the Nov. 2 ballot, but the agreement collapsed two days later.

The Republican governor and officials in the departments of Agriculture and Business and Economic Development tried to link slots to the state's environmental and economic health during a tour of Winbak Farms, a standardbred horse farm southeast of Chesapeake City. Standardbred horses are used in harness racing.

Winbak's owner, Joe Thomson, said he invited Ehrlich to impress upon him the urgency of supporting the horse industry and to illustrate what the state could lose if horse farms follow slot machines to Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Thomson led Ehrlich and his entourage along sycamore-lined roads and past rolling hills where horses grazed.

Thomson said he doesn't care about legalized slots so long as the government does something to make racing purses more competitive.

The state's standardbred industry is more troubled than the thoroughbred because of the presence of intense competition across the state line, and the lack of a marquee race like the Preakness.

Since slots became legal in Delaware, he said, annual purses for races there went from about $1 million, which is where Maryland's are now, to about $37 million.

"We will sell 300 yearlings this year. Six will be in Maryland," said Bill Gerweck, the farm's general manager. "Why? Because there is no market."

The economic effect of a collapse in the horse industry would ripple throughout the state, the tour guides said. Thomson said he employs about 75 people. His 2,000-acre farm requires about 10,000 acres planted with hay and grain to support the horses. He put up 126 miles of fence made of Maryland timber at $6 a foot.

Henry Holloway Sr., a sixth-generation Harford County farmer who accompanied the tour, said about half of his income is from hay, and 90 percent of that goes to local horses. His son, who owns three farm- and garden-supply shops, does most of his business with horse farms.

Chesapeake City Mayor Rob Bennstine said a tour bus a day stops in town for lunch in summer after touring the farms.

"You could teach a class in Economics 101 about the horse industry, about how one job creates another and another and another," Ehrlich said.

Gerweck said it would take a relatively small amount of money to get the standardbred industry on its feet - perhaps $3 million a year to boost purses. Even if slots passed tomorrow, the money wouldn't get to the industry for a year or two, and by then it could be too late, he said.

"Once you close it up, it turns into houses, and once there are houses, they don't knock them down to build a farm again," Thomson said. "These guys can grow houses a lot faster than I can grow horses."

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