Slots referendum call renews debate

Leaders, residents try to assess the effects gambling parlors might have in their areas

October 28, 2007|By Julie Scharper and Kelly Brewington | Julie Scharper and Kelly Brewington,Sun reporters

A day after Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed a referendum letting voters decide whether slots should be legalized, state and local leaders considered the impact that slots would have on their communities.

Some vowed to fight against slots, while others said yesterday that the expected financial benefits trumped their reservations about gambling parlors.

The plan, to be debated at a special legislative session that begins tomorrow, would allow up to 15,000 slot machines at five locations -- one each in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties, and Baltimore City. The proposed sites include two horse racing parks, Laurel Park and Ocean Downs, and areas strategically located to divert people from driving to out-of-state gambling parlors.

State officials have long been deadlocked over the issue of slots. Under O'Malley's proposal, voters would decide the issue in a November 2008 referendum.

A spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon said her decision to recommend including the city on the list of potential slots sites was "a very difficult choice," given her opposition to slot machines throughout her political career.

The mayor was adamant about keeping slots away from Pimlico Race Course or the Inner Harbor, and instead specifying a nonresidential area south of the city, within a half-mile of Interstate 95 and Route 295, spokesman Anthony McCarthy said. Dixon has been committed to helping Pimlico thrive, but she could not support placing slots in the struggling Park Heights neighborhood, he said.

"If the legislature does not pass the governor's budget reconciliation package, then it's going to have a direct impact on the services in Baltimore," McCarthy said. "The mayor wants to reserve some options for the city."

But Del. Brian K. McHale, a Baltimore Democrat whose district includes the potential slots site, said he could not support the governor's proposal, even though he had supported a slots bill that passed the House in 2005.

"I think I would be in support of a referendum if it didn't include that location," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, there is no suitable location for slots in the city."

City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake supports bringing slots to the city as long as "a significant portion of that revenue goes toward the revitalization of communities throughout our city that have been victims of despair and empty promises for too long," according to an e-mailed statement from spokesman Shaun E. Adamec.

Rawlings-Blake would like to see slots proceeds put to building and maintaining schools, as well as opening recreation centers, he said.

Del. Curtis S. Anderson, chairman of the Baltimore delegation, said city lawmakers have long been split on slots, but the potential Baltimore site is likely to frustrate the majority of city lawmakers.

"There was no consensus about that location," he said. "But those of us, like myself, who are against slots, are against them anywhere."

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore City Democrat who opposes slots, said she wasn't surprised by the Baltimore site proposal, saying it appears it will create a gambling destination complex with room for restaurants and entertainment.

"In all fairness, sites in Baltimore have been tossed around for years," she said.

But Ruth Sherrill, president of the community association in Westport, which is near the proposed city slots location, said members of her community wouldn't object to a gaming parlor so long as it brought jobs for residents.

The mayor of Ocean City, an area with a long history of opposition to slots, said that his community was prepared to fight against any bill to allow them, particularly at a proposed location at the Ocean Downs racetrack in Worcester County.

"We realize that the governor and the legislature have some very tough decisions to make, but we don't believe gambling is the answer," Mayor Rick Meehan said.

The introduction of slots would mean that Maryland residents would have less disposable income to spend on travel and resorts, he said, and large gambling parlors featuring food and drinks would "cannibalize small businesses."

"It's not free money; there is a cost," he said.

State Sen. George C. Edwards, a Republican representing Allegany, Garrett and parts of Washington counties, said that he supports slots, but with caveats.

Edwards said that he would support slots only if the counties hosting them -- and perhaps surrounding counties that would be forced to accommodate increased traffic -- reaped a direct benefit from the revenue.

While Edwards said that he did not have a problem with the proposal to bring slots to Allegany, he said he would rather see them at a racetrack than at state property near Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort, which was intended to be a "family resort."

Edwards said that putting the slots to a referendum would create an unnecessary delay.

"I think we ought to just bite the bullet and vote on it -- that's why we're out there," he said. "There's a lot of tough issues out there -- the death penalty, gay marriage -- we can't have a referendum on everything.",

Sun reporter Tyeesha Dixon contributed to this article.

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