But slots proponents say those concerns strain credulity and point out that soldiers can go to any number of nearby places to play Keno or the lottery. Officials with Fort Meade and the NSA declined to take a position.

Summer Barkley, a spokeswoman at the Army installation, called slots "a state issue." NSA spokesman Pat Bomgardner said: "We wouldn't comment on something that politically charged."

The Anne Arundel venue could house nearly one in three slot machines allowed in the state, or up to 4,750, in what is expected to be the most lucrative parlor in Maryland. State officials say they expect strong competition for the license.

Affiliates of Arundel Mills mall have expressed interest in the past, though the current owner, Simon Property Group Inc., specializes in retail and does not own any gambling venues. A company spokesman declined to comment.

Another rumored location has been Blob's Park, the restaurant and dance hall, though the owners have not announced any plans. A Web site for the park, billed as an authentic Bavarian beer garden, says it is closed for renovation and opening under new management.

While some industry observers say Laurel Park would have a built-in advantage when bidding for a slots license because it already offers gambling, Canada-based Magna, which also owns Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, has lost money since 2002, including $114 million last year, and state lawmakers have questioned its management.

Maryland Racing Commission Chairman John B. Franzone said Magna might join with an established gambling company to bolster its bid. He said that the site, at 360 acres, could accommodate other entertainment, retail and restaurants to become a "mini-Las Vegas."

Laurel Park could benefit from a requirement that the commission awarding slots licenses consider the impact on existing jobs.

A slots parlor at another site could lure gamblers from Laurel Park and speed its decline. Lobbyists for the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates the track, failed to persuade lawmakers to narrow the Anne Arundel area eligible for slots but supported the jobs language.

Slots have long been sought as a way to rescue Maryland's ailing horse racing industry, as neighboring states have used slots to offer bigger purses, drawing better horses and bigger crowds.

Laurel Park has reduced the number of days it offers live racing and seen wagering at the facility decline in recent years. Despite special events such as Track Diva Day and College Pride Day to draw a younger crowd and more women, on many days the clientele is dominated by male retirees watching races elsewhere that are simulcast at the facility.

Architects have drawn up renovation plans over the years to accommodate slots, but those were shelved when the General Assembly gridlocked on the issue.

"Maryland was a leader in the industry, and to fall from that position to where we are literally hanging on the end of a thread, almost like someone hanging from a cliff by their fingernails, is very sad," said Joseph A. DeFrancis, a former owner of the Jockey Club. "If the referendum doesn't pass, I truly believe that the horse racing industry will die in Maryland."

According to a fiscal analysis, slots would bring up to $100 million annually to augment racing purses and help the horse breeding industry in Maryland, and about $25 million a year in local aid - an amount that would dwarf the local impact fees of about $240,000 that Laurel Park now pays. The licensee also would be required to invest as much as $238 million in construction and related costs.

"It's in the people's hands now, where it should have been in the first place. You can't leave it up to the politicians," said Foard Wilgis, a horse breeder based at Laurel Park. "I just hope the voters pass it."

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