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In Maryland, some casino foes become friends

When a casino was proposed less than two miles from his neighborhood near Arundel Mills, David Jones spent weekends canvassing for petition signatures, chaired the No Slots at the Mall activist group and dedicated months to trying to kill the project.

Last month, he again stood behind a podium at a neighborhood meeting — this time defending the Maryland Live Casino and asking for the community's revenue cut to be devoted to math and science programs.

"With the threat of a sixth casino coming on line at National Harbor, we who live right next to this casino have to think about our quality of life," Jones said later, explaining his change of heart. "I still believe that it shouldn't have been here. Now what do you do? You cobble together what you can, and you do the best you can."

As state lawmakers wrestle with questions about expanding gaming, some former foes of the Maryland Live casino have become its allies in opposing a proposed casino at the National Harbor complex inPrince George's County. Like Maryland Live's developers, they perceive competition from a Las Vegas-style resort on the Potomac as a threat to the state's biggest and most lucrative casino, which is still in its infancy.

Such is the evolution of the gambling debate in Maryland. Politicians and lobbyists alike have crossed lines they once drew in the sand. And while residents next door to the casino at Arundel Mills may still not like it, they're willing to be pragmatic bedfellows.

Gov.Martin O' Malleycalled using gambling money for education a "morally bankrupt" effort when he was Baltimore mayor. This summer, he has pushed for a special session on the National Harbor casino proposal and related issues — with a decision expected within days — in part to end the distracting debate about gambling and in part to funnel millions into education.

Similarly, lobbyist W. Minor Carter led the effort against a 2008 referendum that first legalized casinos in Maryland. Now he represents National Harbor.

"In my conscience, I don't think I flip-flopped, but I can see how other people might have that opinion," Carter said, adding that even in his opposition, he believed a casino should be a destination like Atlantic City, Las Vegas and, now, National Harbor.

Prince George's County ExecutiveRushern L. Baker IIIopposed slots as a state delegate, but he spent the first half of this year lobbying state lawmakers to expand gambling into his county. Anne Arundel County ExecutiveJohn R. Leopoldalso worked against slots as a state delegate, but now Leopold is one of the highest-profile defenders of the casino at Arundel Mills. Leopold said county executives have different perspectives than legislators.

"Facing the harsh realities of a down-turned economy, job creation and revenue generation have become the overarching priorities," Leopold said.

State leaders continue closed-door meetings on whether to call back the Maryland General Assembly for a special session on expanding gambling. O'Malley said Monday there was "a little better than 50-50 chance" that a special session would be called. On Tuesday, he met with House SpeakerMichael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, and a special session remains a possibility.

Boon or bane?

Meanwhile, David Cordish, president ofthe Cordish Cos.that developed the Arundel Mills casino, sent a letter to legislators and the governor arguing data from the casino's first month shows Maryland Live's market share is bigger than estimated by the state analysts who concluded Maryland could support a sixth casino. With the distribution of Maryland Live's customers stretching more than 50 miles away into Virginia and Southern Maryland, Cordish said, the National Harbor site would siphon away so many gamblers from Arundel Mills that it couldn't open without causing a "massive loss" to the state.

Even without having seen statistics, some former casino opponents near Arundel Mills agree that Maryland Live will suffer if National Harbor gets a casino.

Lore Peterson, who lives a little more than a mile from the Maryland Live Casino in the Provinces neighborhood, fought to ensure that roads were upgraded to handle traffic from the casino and the restaurants and apartment buildings built in its wake. Now she sits on the development council that tells Anne Arundel County government how to divvy up the $15 million the casino generates for local needs.

"We tried to tell the county that we didn't want it, but the county didn't listen and now it's here," Peterson said of the casino. "Now that it's there, it's time to put everything aside."

During a recent meeting, Peterson criticized state leaders for considering the addition of a competing casino after forcing one on her community.

"They're doing the citizens of Hanover a dirty trick," Peterson said. "How can the politicians be doing this to their constituents? ... It's here, and we've got it. Now we have to support it."

Peterson's remarks landed on the sympathetic ears of Joseph Weinberg, president of development atthe Cordish Cos.and the company's representative on the local development council.

"We clearly would have not made the investment we made, or done the project at all, if we knew there was going to be another facility down the street," Weinberg said. That echoed the argument he has made to lawmakers: A tightly regulated and highly taxed industry should be treated more like a utility than a private business. Too many casinos, Weinberg said, will dilute the success of each one.

"You can't build them everywhere," he said.

Advocates of the National Harbor site disagree. They point to the analysis by Maryland's Department of Legislative Services and PricewaterhouseCoopers that estimates the state would receive an additional $223 million by authorizing a sixth casino and allowing table games statewide.

"If the Maryland legislature were to approve an expanded gaming package, the official independent state economic analysis concluded that the Maryland Live Casino at Arundel Mills would actually be more profitable, rather than less," Howard Libit, a spokesman for National Harbor's developer, the Peterson Cos., said in a statement. The operators of Maryland Live stand to gain $31 million in annual revenue, the report found.

Maryland's gambling debate has transitioned from whether to have slots at all to where to place casinos and now whether to expand gambling to include table games, change the tax rate and add a sixth casino.

Aaron Meisner, a Baltimore financial adviser who led the Stop Slots Maryland campaign, argued in 2008 that legalizing gambling would lead to endless debate about expanding it. He said recently that as the debate shifts, so will the allegiance of former gambling opponents whose incentives have changed.

"It's basic, all-American self-interest," Meisner said. "I don't think it's specific to gambling. These are the basic forces of human nature."

Other concerns

Even with shifting loyalties, the casino at Arundel Mills has not won the whole-hearted support of some of its neighbors.

Greg Pearson's Somerton Court home sits on a residential street close to Maryland Live, and his 22-year-old son recently got a job at the new Joe's Crab Shack that opened along with the casino. He agrees the casino's success is tied to the quality of his neighborhood, but he struggles to be sympathetic to the gambling interests.

"We feel like they forced this on us, and now they're complaining?" Pearson said. "No one owes them anything."

Aside from the 10-minute drive that turned into a two-hour gridlock nightmare the night the casino opened, Pearson considers the casino a decent neighbor, though one he'll never like.

"Having it in your front yard is a different thing," Pearson said. "I want to see it succeed because I don't want it to become a blight, but I won't go as far to say I'll protect it."

Cherisa Henderson, 30, lives in the Villages of Dorchester neighborhood near Arundel Mills, and she dislikes the casino now as much as when it was proposed.

"We have a JumboTron down the street from our house," she said. "The neighborhood itself is changing from a family neighborhood to a party neighborhood."

She said children's activities at the mall's food court have been removed as the mall, and the casino, tries to attract a higher-end clientele, and points to the new Coach store as Exhibit A.

Yet, she said, she doesn't want the casino to fail. She wants the money it generates to be invested in schools, and — most of all — she doesn't want competition from another casino to make the situation worse.

"In this housing economy, we can't just up and move," she said.

Fears that gambling competition will harm Maryland Live also touched the management of Arundel Mills mall.

"We were a very successful mall before this was even a twinkle in our eyes," said Gene Condon, general manager of the mall. "If this [casino] is not successful because it is cut off at the legs from the south, it could damage an already successful project."

Whether the mall's financial future is at stake remains a question to Mike Carruthers, whose development company owns several office and apartment buildings around Arundel Mills. Carruthers is also chairman of the local development council that signed off on using the community's $15 million cut of casino revenue to pay for three police officers, a new ambulance, technology at the local library branch, $1 million worth of road resurfacing projects and a $2 million satellite campus for Anne Arundel Community College.

"I don't have a dog in that fight, but what I do know is that the people around Arundel Mills were told this is how we're going to play this game, and if you get this casino, you're going to get this amount of money," he said.

"Now, they have this casino, they have the potential problems, and now the state wants to change the rules." Carruthers said. "It doesn't matter if you have 250,000 people or half a million people [at the casino]. You still have the same problems. You just have less money to mitigate it."

ecox@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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