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To OC, slots present threat, opportunity

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The dusty harness track in Berlin, with its minor-league charm and horse-and-buggy night races, is no threat to the tourism juggernaut on the beach five miles away - and that's just how Ocean City business and political leaders want to keep it.

But if Marylanders vote in November to legalize slot machine gambling, Ocean Downs is the likely site for a 2,500-machine casino, a prospect that conjures nightmares in the minds of town officials, who envision tourists so transfixed by glittery one-armed bandits that they forgo boardwalk skee-ball and salt-water taffy - or give up on Ocean City altogether.

"Ocean City is Maryland's only recreational beach resort, and we send hundreds of millions of dollars to the state, over $100 million every year," said Mayor Rick Meehan, referring to taxes generated by tourism. "Why would anyone want to hurt that?"

Slots proponents, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, say that the local business leadership's fears are overblown. They say expanded gambling is necessary to avoid deep budget cuts and to prevent millions in Marylanders' dollars from continuing to flow to nearby states that have slots and casinos, such as Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New Jersey.

"The business people I've talked to while down here have told me … they think it's a good idea and can't understand why people are opposed to it," O'Malley, a Democrat, said after an event on the boardwalk last week during the annual Maryland Association of Counties conference. "It's a reasonable proposal, it's moderate, it's limited and it's very much state-controlled."

Indeed, not all small businesses on and off the boardwalk are falling in line with the local Chamber of Commerce's claim of consensus opposition to slots.

Anna Dolle Bushnell, co-owner of Dolle's Candyland, a salt-water taffy and popcorn emporium on the boardwalk since 1910, said she didn't think slots "would be terrible, as long as it stays over there" at Ocean Downs. A casino might boost business in the off-season, she said: "In the fall, I would think they would bring in lots of bus trips and things like that."

More than 130 blocks north, the co-owner of Little Rock Lizzie's restaurant said he hadn't given much thought to slots but was leaning in their favor. "I believe it would help control taxes and provide some revenue in off-season months," said Neil Rocklin. "That would be a positive thing."

Under the referendum, a total of 15,000 slot machines would be authorized at five locations across the state, one of which centers on Ocean Downs. As a concession to competitive business concerns here, the General Assembly inserted provisions in the legislation that prohibit a slots operation at Ocean Downs from offering live entertainment other than a piano player, or free food sometimes used at casinos to entice gamblers.

Also under the legislation, if slots come to Ocean Downs, no one with a financial stake in the track may develop a hotel, amusement park or conference center - even a miniature golf course - within 10 miles of the facility.

Montgomery County developer William Rickman, who owns the harness track as well as a track-and-slots operation in nearby Delaware, did not return calls for comment but has previously lobbied for slots at Ocean Downs.

Last year at this time, anti-slots forces in Ocean City were focused on lobbying politicians, and they galvanized many small businesses to post placards in shop windows. Now that the issue is in voters' hands after years of debate in Annapolis, the local Chamber of Commerce is appealing directly to tourists.

"It's about getting the message to the thousands of visitors that come to Ocean City," said Melanie A. Pursel, executive director of the local chamber, which has split with the pro-slots statewide business organization.

"This is a vibrant, family-oriented community, and we just feel [slots] would do nothing but bring negativity here … destroy small businesses, bring additional crime and the need for additional social services to deal with addiction."

Pursel's organization is working with Marylanders United to Stop Slots, a ballot committee, to deliver the no-slots message through advertisements in local media. On Thursday, the group held a news conference at the southern end of the boardwalk, and Comptroller Peter Franchot, a leading anti-slots voice, railed against the gambling proposal as a government-backed scheme to "defraud" citizens of their disposable income.

But the event attracted little local media attention and even less interest from the throngs of vacationers promenading under a baking sun. When asked, few tourists voiced strong feelings on the slots question. They were on holiday, after all.

"I think it might be OK if they have them," said Darlene Purvis of Middletown, Pa., who was vacationing with her husband, stepson and daughter. She said a casino wouldn't lure her tourist dollars away after three decades of coming to this beach. "We're not gamblers, and we have kids, so we would come to the shore regardless of a casino."

Cynthia Paul, a retiree from Pasadena relaxing on a boardwalk bench, said she might sample the slots during her annual week in Ocean City, but she didn't think gambling would hurt the water-oriented economy: "People might go for a day, but they're not going to stop coming to the beach. I don't think it will hurt Ocean City."

There were more misgivings about slots among visitors to Ocean Downs than at the ocean itself.

Despite a gray sky that threatened rain, hundreds of people flocked to the racetrack Thursday for $1 beers, $2 bets and a low-key atmosphere that simultaneously recalled ancient Roman chariot races and a rural state fair. The crowd included young families, retirees and groups of men in their 20s sharpening their wagering skills.

Belying a trend of declining attendance at horse races across the country, Ocean Downs averages 1,800 fans a night during racing days, putting it in the top 10 percent of harness tracks in the country, track officials said.

Tom Cernik, a Baltimore City police officer from Perry Hall, has been bringing his family to the harness races for years during their weeklong vacation here. He worries that slots could derail the mellow, family-friendly vibe of the track.

"The whole atmosphere of this racetrack could change," Cernik said, gesturing to the hundreds of people, young and old, enjoying a balmy evening as the sulkies swept by on the stone-dust track. "I think it'll bring a lower class of ... people playing their last quarters. When families see that, they're not going to come out here."

His daughter, Kelly Cernik, a recent Salisbury University graduate, said she appreciates the minor-league-baseball feeling of Ocean Downs as it is: "This is exactly like a Shore Birds game. I don't think slots would fit here. I kind of like the crowd as it is."

But given the choice between slots and higher taxes - a threat dangled by slots activists - her father didn't hesitate. "Then I'll vote for slots," Tom Cernik said.

Donna Tingle, 63, a Bishopville resident who works the reservation desk at an Ocean City motel, said she welcomed the prospect of slots at the track: "It'll bring more money around here, and people will have to pay better wages."

And would she play the machines? "Oh, yeah," Tingle said, laughing. "They're addictive. ... If they had them in the grocery store, I'd play them."

g adi.dechter@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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