City works on spending plan for casino money

After the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore opens later this year, the city needs to figure out how to spend an estimated windfall of at least $15 million a year meant for the neighborhoods around the casino.

Officials and community members said they want to find "big, game-changing ideas" that can make the money an engine for economic development in the communities affected by the new gambling facility.

"I hope that we are extremely creative and visionary in how we approach these questions and we don't limit ourselves to traditional expenditures," said State Senator Bill Ferguson, who chairs the local development council that will advise the administration on the spending.

State law reserves 5.5 percent of the slot revenue for "communities in the immediate proximity" of the casino. In Baltimore, the zone includes Port Covington, Federal Hill, Westport, Carroll Camden and Cherry Hill, among others. The money is supposed to supplement city spending in those neighborhoods, not replace it.

In January, the Planning Department presented an overview to city agencies that outlined possibilities for economic development in the zone, such as returning Port Covington to industrial use or locating commercial development along waterfront parcels in Westport.

The document also identified a range of more specific proposals, including building a new library in Pigtown, improving pedestrian access to the Hamburg Light Rail Station, adding a water taxi stop at Middle Branch park and hosting a Middle Branch triathalon.

The Planning Department will host a series of public meetings to get community feedback on the proposals, starting with one at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Camden Yards. The others will be held Thursday and June 5 at Montgomery Park.

Consulting firm McCormick Taylor Inc. won a $100,000 city contract in March to craft a final plan by the fall.

"We're still a little bit in the more conceptual and idea phase, but within the next couple of months we should, I hope, rapidly be getting into where we can kind of make some of those bold ideas into tangible proposals," Planning Director Tom Stosur said. "It's a pretty amazing opportunity. We hoping our master plan can help map out some of those big, game-changing ideas and rally support around those."

Keisha Allen, president of the Westport Neighborhood Association and a member of the local development council, said residents have grown weary of attending planning meetings to discuss ideas that rarely pan out, but she is hopeful that this time is different.

"We have real live money to work with now," said Allen, adding that she will be tracking the money to make sure it ends up going to the neighborhoods it is supposed to help. "The day that casino opens, we're going to be watching that money like a hawk."

Sage Policy Group CEO Anirban Basu, who is consulting with the city and will speak at Tuesday's meeting, said the challenges for planners include the differences between the zone's neighborhoods, as well as the fact that "it's very easy to waste money."

"What often happens is that in these processes the people who have the strongest voice will generally be able to attract the most money toward their priorities, and sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes it's not," he said.

Plans for the money and the zone's boundaries already have raised some questions.

"Whenever you draw the lines for an impact zone, somebody's in and somebody's out. There will always be controversy, especially when money's attached," Ferguson said. "At some point you have to stop the line somewhere."

Recommendations for the first year of spending, unveiled last December after a year of community input, were included as part of the mayor's budget proposal released in April. They include $1 million for a "complete streets" study of nearby roads and public spaces; $1.5 million for additional police presence; and $375,000 for an employment connection center.

Once the city deals with immediate infrastructure needs, some said they hope the projects become more ambitious.

"Right now, most of the money is going back into the getting-started projects, so it's not going to really show much," said Bill Reuter, a board member of the Ridgely's Delight Association and a member of the local development council. "I would like to see some big thinking, big ideas. I think it's an opportunity to do something world-class."

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