Ocean City says slots are threat to town

Beach resort fears gambling would draw money away

August 18, 2007|By Andrew A. Green and Chris Guy | Andrew A. Green and Chris Guy,Sun reporters

OCEAN CITY -- Maryland's beach resort is sending a clear message: "No slots in Md. Period."

When pro-slots Gov. Martin O'Malley and the rest of the state's political elites came to town for the Maryland Association of Counties meeting here this week, they found variations on that theme plastered across hotel marquees up and down the island.

Thursday morning, the city's Chamber of Commerce met with O'Malley and anti-slots Comptroller Peter Franchot, and then voted on the spot to oppose expanded gambling - not just in their town but anywhere in the state.

Ocean City Mayor Richard W. Meehan says that as the debate over slot machines continues in Annapolis, his community will make it known that gambling would be a direct threat to the state's family-friendly resort town.

"There's only so much disposable income people have," Meehan said. "Presently, Ocean City is very successful. People choose to come here and spend their disposable income in restaurants and hotels, and we don't want to change that."

The business owners oppose adding slots to Ocean Downs Racetrack, a harness race track just outside of Ocean City, but they also see the development of slots anywhere in the state as a threat.

The idea, business owners say, is that every dollar Marylanders put in slot machines - even if they're at Pimlico or in Laurel or Rocky Gap - is a dollar they're not going to spend on the boardwalk.

If the state develops free-standing slots facilities with hotels of their own, or if the slots parlors start giving away food and drinks to keep gamblers nearby, so much the worse, they say.

Business and political leaders here have long voiced their opposition to slots, but they appear to be stepping up their campaign now that O'Malley has indicated he is likely to propose allowing the machines at racetracks.

Jay Knerr, a former Chamber of Commerce president who owns a chain of boardwalk kite shops, says the list of slots foes includes most of the city's hotel operators; the hotel, motel and restaurant association; the city's downtown economic development corporation; as well as the mayor and City Council.

"Everybody is buzzing about slots, and we are adamantly opposed," Knerr said. "We understand the budget situation, but there are better ways to deal with it. In Ocean City, we are speaking with a united voice. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning."

AnneMarie Dickerson, owner of the Francis Scott Key Motel in West Ocean City, says she lobbied O'Malley when the governor made an appearance here in June.

"I have a lot of respect for the governor, but I am 100 percent opposed to slots anywhere - not just in our family resort," Dickerson said. "Tourism is the crown jewel of Maryland. We ought to be investing in tourism. Any kind of gambling is just the first step until the next budget crises."

Lenny Berger, who owns the Clarion Hotel and other beach properties, is chairman of the town's economic development commission. He says O'Malley and other state officials should consider adding to the state's sales tax, as well revamping the state's income tax system.

Paying higher taxes would be better than allowing slots, he said.

"I'd rather take it out of my pocket than see slots in a resort community," Berger said. "We need to build tourism in this state because it's a solid foundation. I would hope the state takes the high road. We don't need slots anywhere in Maryland."

O'Malley said he understood the business owners' concerns but respectfully disagrees with them.

"I told them ... I believe a limited number of slots at tracks to keep racing jobs and revenue in Maryland is a reasonable compromise," O'Malley said.

The governor's secretary of labor licensing and regulation, Thomas E. Perez, issued a report this week concluding that Maryland's racing industry is worth saving for the jobs it produces and because of the open space occupied by horse farms.

Perez wrote that the subsidies to racing purses that slots revenue provides in Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania make it impossible for Maryland tracks to compete.

The arguments in the report were almost identical to those former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. used in his failed attempts to bring slot machines to the state, but the report was a significant sign that O'Malley intends to make slots a key component of his effort to resolve Maryland's projected $1.5 billion budget shortfall.

County executives from the state's biggest counties met Thursday with state Budget Secretary T. Eloise Foster, who told them that the administration has made significant progress in crafting the details of its revenue proposals.

The executives said she didn't provide them with any of the details, saying she would leave it to the governor to announce them when the time is right.

Franchot said he told Ocean City businessmen that despite the push from the state's new Democratic governor, slots aren't a done deal.

Significant opposition to expanded gambling remains in the Democratic-controlled House of Delegates, and Franchot said he thinks a concerted lobbying effort from around the state can derail it again.

"There's a feeling by people around the state that they've been shut out of the process; that slots have been decided by race track owners and the political elite," Franchot said. "My message to people is that it's a wide-open issue and they should involve themselves."

andy.green@baltsun.com

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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