It was the dark horse in the race to finally bring slots to Maryland and a gambling palace at Arundel Mills mall is still no sure bet.
Although Anne Arundel County residents voted overwhelmingly to legalize slot machines in the state along with a majority of Marylanders, some communities around the sprawling mall are having second thoughts. Call it the "I thought slots would be at Laurel Park racetrack, not in my back yard" change of heart. Thursday, voters are expected to pack the County Council chambers to speak out on legislation that would permit a video lottery facility at Arundel Mills and provide added protections for communities on issues such as parking, crime and lights.
Since the owners of Laurel and Pimlico racetracks failed to put forth a viable bid for a slots parlor, the focus has been on Arundel Mills, a popular mall owned by developer David Cordish, who wants to build a 4,750-slot machine and entertainment complex there. But a change in zoning law must be approved before a slots palace could rise.
Arundel Mills' neighbors may not have expected slots in their backyard, but a proposed county zoning bill would give them input into the development of a facility. The bill submitted by County Executive John R. Leopold allows a video lottery facility as a conditional use, which would require the developer to meet a series of conditions on lighting, parking, traffic management, security and other issues of serious concern to communities.
Still, there's no getting around that this proposal has created the strangest of bedfellows and the least convenient marriage. Mr. Leopold, for example, opposes slots but says county voters have spoken. Council Chairman Edward R. Reilly feels similarly. And yet a poll of 625 county residents by the community college's Center for the Study of Local Issues found 44 percent preferred Laurel as the slots location with only 16 percent favoring Arundel Mills. Of seven council members, three support the zoning change, two oppose it and two haven't decided.
A state commission will make the final decision on locating slots facilities, but without meeting current zoning requirements, the Cordish proposal would be out of the game. Add to this the county's budget shortfall and the prospect of $13 million to $15 million in additional revenue from slots, and the outcome of the debate is a crapshoot.
Council members may face angry local residents, but they should think long and hard about all the ramifications of rejecting the plan. If Maryland doesn't collect the hundreds of millions of dollars from gaming parlors in Arundel and three other locales, the state budget shortfall will be felt not only in Annapolis and Hanover but in each of their backyards. In tax-averse Anne Arundel, you got to play to win.