For all the charges and counter-charges, the litigation and millions of dollars spent on advertising both pro and con, the issue of slots at Arundel Mills mall comes down to a mere zoning decision. Next Tuesday, Anne Arundel County residents will decide whether to approve Question A and allow slot machines to be located in certain industrial or commercial zones.
Should voters follow the lead of their elected officials and approve the measure, a slots parlor housing 4,750 machines as well as live entertainment and restaurants will be built by a Baltimore developer on a section of the mall's parking lot. If voters reject Question A, the future of the project is far less certain: It may or may not be rebid, and it may not be built in the county at all.
This is a high-stakes decision. The Arundel Mills proposal is projected to be by far the most lucrative of the five slot machine facilities approved by the state. The hundreds of millions of dollars it would generate would help fund public education in Maryland and potentially forestall or prevent a tax increase that might be needed to close a potential $1.1 billion budget shortfall in Fiscal 2012.
But the consequences are even greater for those who live in Anne Arundel, where the Cordish Cos. project is expected to generate $300 million in construction spending and create hundreds of new jobs. It could also produce as much as $30 million in revenue annually for a county facing its own budget deficit of $70 million or more next year — thus significantly reducing the chances that Arundel residents would have to swallow tax increases or cuts to basic government services.
Voters should approve Question A not because a local company stands to benefit or because it has been endorsed by the county executive, firefighters, police, teachers, the county's chamber of commerce and county tax association but because it's simply in their best interests today and in the future. Two years ago, about 60 percent of county voters approved the constitutional amendment allowing a slots parlor in Anne Arundel, a margin even higher than the statewide result, and the case for expanded gaming has only gotten stronger.
One can understand the objections of the owners of Laurel Park racetrack, and particularly those of Penn National, whose Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races would stand to suffer from the competition. And it's also understandable that some people who live in the immediate vicinity of Arundel Mills are displeased by the prospect of further commercial development there. That's to be expected in any major development decision.
Yet if Maryland is going to have slot machines — and taxpayers are to gain the benefits that come with them — then they have to be put somewhere. The Arundel Mills site may be the safest gamble possible. It offers the advantage of the proximity of shopping, restaurants and hotels that should bring the slots greater patronage and bring more customers to those attractions as well. The mall's location between Baltimore and Washington and convenient access to major highways further improves its chances for success.
As much as Laurel Park's owners would have preferred to have slots there (despite their failure to make a qualified bid), everyone involved in Maryland horse racing stands to benefit as a portion of the slots proceeds would be used to enrich purses and to allow significant capital improvements to the tracks. Should Question A be rejected, much of that revenue would be lost.
Maryland's experience with slot machines has so far demonstrated that the potential for success is there. The state's first slots parlor at Perryville in Cecil County has done a land rush business, averaging $346 in daily revenue from each of its 1,500 machines, compared to the projected $210. There's no reason to believe Arundel Mills won't perform at least as well, and the residents of Anne Arundel County stand to reap the rewards by endorsing Question A.