Slots are talk of the town in Cambridge

CAMBRIDGE - This picturesque town along the Choptank River has a gleaming new Hyatt hotel, an up-and-coming arts district and high hopes for the infusion of cash that tourists are beginning to bring.

Some figure that adding slot machines to the mix could only enhance the revival of this city, which was once the center of Maryland's seafood industry. Others are staunchly opposed to slots, saying Cambridge is finally on the mend without gambling.

"The plus side is that [slots] could be the kind of catalyst the Hyatt has been for us, a lightning rod that brings attention to the city," said Gage Thomas, an influential second-generation real estate agent.

But Brian Manning, a retired Navy officer who is renovating a house in the city's historic West End, says slots "would change the whole tenor of the town. ... I'm afraid it could be the worst thing to happen to us."

Yesterday, the topic du jour was a surprise move by a key state legislative committee to include Dorchester County as one of three places in Maryland, apart from racetracks, that could have slot machines.

Regulars around the big table in the back of the Place on Race Cafe acknowledged that they were puzzled at Tuesday night's vote by the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. Most said they were resigned to the idea of expanded gambling in Maryland. But they wanted to hear details before deciding what they think about slots for Cambridge, a city of 11,000.

"I have no objection to slots at racetracks, but I'm not sure about this," said Corinne Mitsak, who has run the Race Street cafe with her son, Michael, for the past six years. "Dorchester's had traditionally high unemployment, but that doesn't mean we'll just jump at anything."

Mayor Cleveland L. Rippons said he hasn't taken a position on the gambling machines. But he said that any slots parlor in Dorchester would have to be within the city limits of Cambridge because it has water and sewer capacity to handle such a project.

"All this is very premature," Rippons said. "There are a number of sites within the city that could work, sites that ... could handle traffic and tour buses. This is a baby step in a process that would require a lot of giant steps."

Surprise addition

In Annapolis, it was unclear yesterday who pushed to add Dorchester County to the list of places eligible for slot machines. The same package of revisions removed the Ocean Downs harness-racing track near Ocean City from the list.

The track is owned by William R. Rickman Jr., the Montgomery County businessman who opened an off-track betting parlor two years ago in a Cambridge shopping center along U.S. 50.

State Sen. Richard F. Colburn, the Eastern Shore Republican who represents Dorchester County, was angry that he had to learn about the committee's amendment from the morning newspapers.

"It seems to me that somebody ought to inform the local senator," Colburn said. "Who wanted Dorchester added to the bill? No one can tell me."

Neither Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. nor Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller was willing to say yesterday who moved to add Dorchester after Senate Democrats agreed to the governor's request to remove Ocean Downs from legislation.

"It's always been out there as a possible place," Ehrlich said yesterday. "It's only one location among several that would be eligible for slots. It doesn't guarantee that it will be there."

Ehrlich added that the slot machine development could give a boost to economically depressed areas. "This area and Western Maryland have some economic challenge, and I think this could help," he said.

Miller echoed the message about the importance of investment in Dorchester County. "Dorchester has a declining oyster industry, a declining crab industry. They have very little other job growth," he said.

No plans in mind

In an interview Tuesday night, Rickman indicated that he did not intend to seek a slots license for his off-track betting parlor in Cambridge. "I think there will be others more interested than me," he said.

If Rickman were to seek a slots license for his Cambridge site, he would be forced to abandon his plans to have slot machines at a site in Allegany County where he is licensed to build a horse racing track. The Senate legislation restricts a person from owning both a track and a nontrack slots facility.

At the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay in Cambridge, general manager Michael T. Walsh disputed rumors that the $150 million hotel and conference center was designed with slots in mind.

"Some people have always been convinced that somehow we had this plan for slots," Walsh said. "If we put a slots parlor here, we'd have to get rid of the 18th hole on the golf course. We'd have to eliminate 400 to 500 residential units that are part of the original design. It has not even been discussed."