In gritty area, slots draw mixed review

Discussion swirls over aspects of O'Malley plan

Westport Reaction

October 28, 2007|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun reporter

Serving midday beers at Colleen's Corner Tavern in Baltimore's blighted Westport neighborhood, Mike Eanes wasn't so sure that slot machines were the answer to the area's woes.

"There comes a lot of grief with that kind of stuff," Eanes said yesterday when told that Gov. Martin O'Malley had proposed a referendum to approve slot machine gambling in five places, including along the Patapsco River's Middle Branch, which Westport overlooks. "You get high crime and riffraff, so I don't know how that would play out in the neighborhood."

Pinned to a wall in the bar is a layout for a $1.4 billion community of offices, shops, homes and a hotel to be built a stone's throw away, a nascent development that is having repercussions in the area and which is separate from the potential gambling emporium, the precise location of which is so far uncertain.

Eanes, whose aunt, Colleen Van Skiver, has owned the tavern that bears her name for 26 years, said that the neighborhood "has been neglected for a while," and that if it takes slots to help it improve, so be it.

"I'm not going anywhere any time soon, because I want to see what all this brings," Eanes said.

The selection of the Baltimore City site grew out of talks between O'Malley and Mayor Sheila Dixon, who wanted to reserve the city's ability to have slot machines, said Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for the governor. O'Malley and Dixon oppose them at the Inner Harbor, his spokesman said.

O'Malley's proposal notes that the slots parlor would be built within a half-mile radius of the intersection of Interstate 95 and Russell Street, just north of Westport. Under the proposal, the gambling site must not be closer than a quarter-mile from a residential area. In this case, it might mean putting it in Gateway South, near where the Refuse Energy Systems Co. plant burns municipal trash, or in a small-industry area nearby known as Carroll-Camden.

This month, the city's Planning Commission adopted a master plan that calls for land-use changes to the entire Middle Branch shoreline. At Port Covington, the owners of a waterfront shopping center hope to transform a 59-acre property into a $2 billion community. To the south, a developer is building 119 luxury townhouses and condos between Westport and Cherry Hill.

To make way for the proposed $1.4 billion community on the Westport shore, Turner Development has cleared the 16-acre site of the former Carr-Lowery Glass Co. and has begun pulling down a large, black-walled building that once housed a coal-burning BGE plant on Kloman Street.

"For the last 75 years, Baltimore City didn't even know we existed," said Priscilla Thompson - known to everyone by her middle initial, K - who has been president of the Westport Community Council for 32 years. "We were known as the place behind the dump."

Now, she said, everyone seems to want a piece of the area. But Thompson, a retired sergeant with the Maryland Transportation Authority Police who, with her husband, owns K's bar on Kent Street in Westport, has no time for slots.

"I don't think we need them here, and I don't think the community will stand for it," she said. "With the traffic and all, I don't think we can handle it."

Her husband, Tom Thompson, a former Baltimore County police officer who was born two blocks from the bar, was more blunt:

"If it's that close, it would put me out of business," he said of the proposed slots parlor. "That's where everyone would hang out. Because they all offer free drinks and whatnot. ... Why would people go to a bar if they can sit in a casino and drink for free?"

(In fact, under the proposal, slots parlors would be forbidden to serve free drinks.)

A few feet from Thompson, however, John Unglesbee, propped on a stool and nursing a beer, was upbeat. Having a gambling place nearby, he said, would preclude his travels to Charles Town, W.Va., or Atlantic City to play the slots. "It wouldn't hurt me," said Unglesbee, who used to work at the Carr-Lowery plant. "This is generally a poor area, you know what I mean? As far as employment, and economically, it'd be good for the area."

Around the corner from the Thompsons' bar, another former glass worker, Christine Webster, worried about potential traffic jams a block away, on Annapolis Road, and the thought of cars roaming side streets, looking for parking spots. "It's all going to change," said Webster, who moved into her rowhouse 37 years ago and raised three children there. "But Maryland and Baltimore City need the dollars."

Webster's view across the street from her front porch includes several boarded-up houses. "People are just sitting on them without selling them," she said. "They expect the prices to rise once all this development happens. Things will get better - it just takes time."

One of Webster's neighbors, Eric Fish, who fixes up houses for a living, said it was apparent just during the past few days that police were making more of an effort to rid the area of drug dealers, some of whom, he said, ply their trade openly on Westport's cracked sidewalks.

"In the last week, that stuff's been shut down," said Fish, who lives in a house that was once his grandparents'. "You wouldn't believe it's the same neighborhood."

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