Slots OK'd at Arundel Mills

Opponents say they'll keep fighting after council vote

December 22, 2009|By Nicole Fuller | nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

The Anne Arundel County Council Monday night approved zoning to allow the state's largest slots parlor to be built at Arundel Mills, both a major victory for Baltimore-based developer David Cordish and a decision that opponents promise to continue fighting.

The council also passed a second zoning bill to allow slots in an area that includes Laurel Park racetrack, but that measure likely will be vetoed by County Executive John R. Leopold, who supports Cordish's proposed casino on what is now a parking lot of the mall.

The council's 4-to-2 votes on both bills break 10 months of debate and delays, during which members came under increasing pressure from state leaders, business interests and county residents to make a decision.

Hundreds of slots proponents and opponents filled the council chambers for the much-awaited vote Monday night. Some waved signs outside.

Neither Cordish nor other representatives of his company were available for comment Monday night.

Opponents vowed to pursue an aggressive plan to put the issue of slots at Arundel Mills up to a referendum vote in the county, which would require about 19,000 signatures. County officials said the referendum application would need to be filed within 45 days of the bill's becoming a law, which should happen shortly after Leopold signs it. If opponents are successful, the question would appear on the fall 2010 ballot.

"This is not the end, but the beginning," said Rob Annicelli, the president of Stop Slots at Arundel Mills. "We're going to fight every permit, the covenants, everything."

Some residents who live near the mall opposed the casino because they said it would bring additional crime and traffic problems to their neighborhood.

A surprise vote for Arundel Mills came from Councilman James Benoit, who had voiced consistent opposition to slots in the county. Benoit, a Democrat, said the passage of the alternate zoning bill that includes Laurel Park forced him to change his vote.

"For the last two years, I've been leading the crusade against gambling in this county because I think it's the wrong way to run government," Benoit said. The Laurel Park bill "is fundamentally bad policy, strips Cordish of their license … [and] violates every sense of fair play and decency that businesses expect from their government."

Benoit was joined in voting for Arundel Mills by council members Ron Dillon, Tricia Johnson and Charles Ferrar. Both Dillon and Johnson stressed the county's dismal fiscal outlook as their reason for supporting the slots parlor.

"We need this money," said Johnson, a Republican. "The horse industry needs it. The schools needs it. I'm afraid that if we don't pass a proposal that's right in front of us, it will go back to the drawing board and we won't get slots at all."

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley, called the council's decision a "significant step" that will allow the mall project to move forward, generate millions in revenue and create thousands of jobs.

Council members Cathy Vitale, a Republican, and Daryl Jones, a Democrat, introduced the Laurel Park bill in October as an alternative to Arundel Mills, though Laurel's owner, bankrupt Magna Entertainment Corp., had already failed in its attempt for a slots license.

The state slots commission threw out Magna's bid because it failed to include the necessary fees; instead, it awarded the Arundel slots license to Cordish for his proposed Arundel Mills facility.

Vitale and Jones voted for the Laurel Park bill, and both voted no for Arundel Mills.

One year after the state requested proposals to build five voter-approved slots parlors across Maryland, three sites have been licensed.

Last week, the state slots panel rejected a Baltimore casino project after commissioners said they had no confidence that the developers were moving forward. The Baltimore City Entertainment Group had failed to pay $19.5 million in required fees and had not submitted plans for a 3,750-machine facility.

The slots commission has said it will rebid that license along with one for a small facility at Rocky Gap State Park in Western Maryland, which attracted no complete applications when they were due last February.

With 4,750 slots machines, the Cordish project at Arundel Mills mall would be the state's largest gambling parlor, by far. A 1,500-slots facility is planned for Cecil County, and an 800-machine site is in the works on the Eastern Shore.

Baltimore Sun reporters Julie Bykowicz and Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.

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