Slots backers, foes turn out

Baltimore Sun reporters

An almost even mix of more than 200 advocates and opponents of a measure that would allow slots at Arundel Mills mall voiced their opinions Tuesday night before the Anne Arundel County Council at the last public hearing before the council votes on the bill next week.

Proponents of slots urged the council to approve the zoning bill, saying slots would bring jobs and increased revenues that would benefit the county's public schools, while opponents pointed to possible increases in traffic and crime as reasons to abandon the proposal.

"I see slots as bringing down the community," said Howard Dunstan of Hanover. "Bringing slots, crime goes up."

Pasquale Hernandez of Severn said he supported slots. "We definitely need jobs in our area," said Hernandez. "The unemployment rate is going crazy."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the legislature's leading slots advocate, expressed doubts earlier Tuesday that a proposed casino at the mall would get zoning approval from local officials, though at least one county councilman characterized the bill's passage as imminent.

"I don't think it looks good right now," said Miller, a Calvert and Prince George's counties Democrat, speaking hours before the County Council hearing.

County Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks, who is a co-sponsor of several companion bills to the zoning legislation, said the council is "trapped," by what he said was the state's seeming insistence on slots in the county.

"I don't appreciate it," said Middlebrooks, a Republican, during the hearing. "I feel like the state has put us in a terrible predicament. ... If we kill this bill and do nothing, there will be gambling in Anne Arundel County. They will crush us."

The zoning bill, proposed by County Executive John R. Leopold, a Republican, and scheduled for a vote Monday, would allow Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. to build an elaborate casino at the Hanover mall, with nearly 5,000 electronic slot machines. The Cordish proposal also needs approval from a politically appointed state commission. That panel is scheduled to meet today in Baltimore and could issue gambling licenses as early as late summer.

Maryland voters legalized slot machine gambling last year after years of debate in Annapolis, though state law allows local jurisdictions to block gambling operations through zoning regulations. Current zoning laws in Anne Arundel don't allow the gaming facilities.

Residents near the mall have rallied to fight the casino, showing up at council meetings and maintaining an opposition Web site. Some have pledged in public forums to vote against council members who support Leopold's bill.

Cordish officials said they are "supremely optimistic" that the zoning legislation will pass, and argued that the mall - already a heavily trafficked tourist draw - is ideally sited to maximize revenue to the state. Company officials estimate a casino could bring in $30 million in annual tax revenue for the county and nearly $450 million for the state.

"We will create 4,000 excellent jobs at a time in our economy where people need employment," Joseph Weinberg, a Cordish partner, said in an e-mail. "The casino at the Mills will enhance safety and raise property values in the areas nearby."

Gov. Martin O'Malley and Democratic leaders in Annapolis are counting on about $600 million in annual slots-related tax revenue to partly fix a structural deficit within three years.

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