Betting on bigger payouts

Eva Rotenbury marks her card during a midday game at Bingo World in Brooklyn Park. "I love it all, because I just like to gamble," said the retiree, who lives in Baltimore. Bingo merchants see slots as a potential threat to their business.
Rows and rows of players hunch over long, brown tables, puffing cigarettes as they use fat markers to color each square that corresponds to the numbers flashing on boards in each corner of the hall.

The scene at Bingo World - a large, open hall located just off the highway in Brooklyn Park - rarely changes, whether it's a chilly afternoon in March or a balmy evening in August. But the operators of Bingo World and Anne Arundel County's other two commercial bingo establishments worry that competition, especially from slot machines, could wreck that stability.

First, they lost business to Keno, then to gambling halls in Delaware. Now, with slots once again before the legislature in Maryland, they see the biggest threat of all to their gaming niche.

These bingo merchants have no intention of accepting their demise passively. They will appear before the Anne Arundel County Council today to ask for the increased prize limits they say would allow them to compete with slot machines, which generally offer bigger prizes and instant gratification.

The council is considering a bill that would allow "progressive" bingo, a game where prize totals carry over every time someone fails to win, and "linked" bingo, a game where players from various locations compete over Internet, phone or satellite connections. The games in each hall could carry prizes as large as $100,000, compared with the $15,000 maximum allowed now, and if all three county halls band together for a linked game, the jackpot could reach $300,000.

Anne Arundel - which could receive slots under plans being considered by the General Assembly - is one of three jurisdictions in the state that license commercial bingo.

"The bigger prizes would just give us the chance to be more creative with what we offer," said Randy Clemens, general manager of Bingo World. "At least we could keep the customers we have instead of losing them outright."

Clemens said business is already down to about 500 customers a night for his main session, compared with a peak of about 800 a night in the early 1990s. He said that if slots come to Maryland, many of his regular customers would still show up but not as often.

"If we lose even a third of our business, that would be a big hit," he said.

Bigger jackpots would not provide a total antidote to slots, bingo hall owners say, but they argue that larger prizes are the best way to secure the future of businesses that have served the county for 50 years.

County Executive Janet S. Owens supports the bill. "If we're going to have the businesses, we need to support them the best we can," she said.

Bingo operators were among the county executive's largest campaign contributors last year. Delta Bingo Inc., which operates Daily Double Bingo in Laurel, and Arundel Amusements Inc. which operates Bingo World, donated $2,000 each at an Owens fund-raiser last March. The county executive shares South County roots with the Wayson family, which owns the county's third commercial bingo hall, Wayson's Bingo.

But Owens, a Millersville Democrat, said the donations have nothing to do with her support for the bill and added that bingo operators have traditionally donated to many county politicians. "Bingo has been an institution in this county," she said. "It's not like it's some new gaming initiative."

Council members who support the bill also said they want to protect existing businesses.

"If they're going to survive, they need help," said Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat whose district includes Bingo World. Beidle said hundreds of constituents would be mad at her if she let anything happen to their gaming spot.

"They feel very passionate about it," she said. "It's a form of recreation they enjoy, and they want it protected."

The council last made major changes to its bingo regulations in 2000, when it voted to limit the number of bingo licenses in the county to prevent new halls from opening. Several members who remain in office, including Annapolis-area Democrat Barbara D. Samorajczyk and Odenton Democrat Bill D. Burlison, said the county might be better off without any commercial bingo, though neither pushed for existing halls to be closed.

Bingo operators sought permission last year to bring instant bingo machines, which closely resemble slots, to the county. But the proposal failed.

Critics of commercial bingo raise many of the same objections as slots opponents, saying the games prey on those who can least afford to lose money.

"From all studies I've seen, the social costs exceed the gross revenues from gambling," Samorajczyk said. "I'm opposed to the bill, and I might be in the minority, but I don't mind saying I have a philosophical objection."

Although many counties permit churches and charities to run bingo games, only Anne Arundel, Calvert and Washington counties license commercial bingo halls.

Owens said she understands criticisms of commercial bingo's social impact. "But it's become almost institutional in the county so I'm not going to make a big issue of it," she said. "I don't know if it will go away over time, but I suspect it may do that."

Customers at Bingo World on a recent afternoon said they're all-purpose gambling lovers and would play slots if they come to Maryland.

"I love it all, because I just like to gamble," said Eva Rotenbury, a Baltimore retiree who said she goes to Bingo World three or four times a week but also regularly plays the slots in Delaware.

Rotenbury, who was wearing a sweat shirt that said, "Don't drive me crazy, drive me to Bingo," said the games offer different thrills. Bingo is more communal but "with slots, it's more of an instant thing," she said. She won $2,200 at a slot machine once but has never taken more than $1,000 in a night at Bingo World.

Rotenbury would welcome larger prizes but said she'd probably play at Bingo World even if slots move nearby and jackpots stay the same.

Clemens said many of his customers are regulars like Rotenbury. "It's a social event," he said. "They know you, and they'll tell you their daughter just graduated from college, or their husband just had a heart attack."

But he has no illusions that such loyalty would save the business if slots come. "They have limited funds," he said of his customers. "Maybe they have a big night playing slots, and they don't make it here the next day like they normally would. That adds up."