Petula Dvorak: Casinos won't cure economic woes

In wheelchairs and on walkers, Baltimore's big plan for the future shuffled into the Horseshoe casino this week to begin the city's renaissance. Again.

"Horseshoe brings the promise of a better Baltimore," declared Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at the casino's grand opening Tuesday night.


Hold your horses, Ms. Mayor.

This better Baltimore you envision is a cavern of blinging slot machines and blackjack, craps and poker tables fueled mostly by the pension checks and minimum-wage earnings of the city's struggling folks.

The myth that you're keeping glam Vegas money here in the state is a dream. I'm sorry, but Mr. and Mrs. Tuxedo aren't thanking their lucky poker chips that they have Baltimore instead of the Bellagio to blow their fortunes on.

The next "Hangover" sequel will never be a hilarious escapade through Baltimore's Fells Point where Bradley Cooper drunkenly elopes with a waitress who called him hon.

Destination gambling is one thing. But this new scheme in Baltimore is not competing with Monaco and Macau. This is the kind of gambling that's the equivalent of bottom trawling, preying on the optimism, desperation and sometimes even addiction of vulnerable folks who wouldn't be flying to Las Vegas or even taking the bus to Dover Downs.

It's the kind of business plan that makes millionaires out of payday loan sharks. All the studies and numbers bear it out — proximity to gambling means that more irresponsible gambling will happen. And I'm not telling you this as someone who is guessing.

I grew up around casinos in a resort town on Lake Tahoe. My immigrant parents got their start in America working in a casino. Most of my high school jobs were in casinos. My brother and I took pictures with the Caesars Santa, my tap-dancing recitals were on the Sahara stage, my 13th birthday party was dinner at Harrah's.

Casinos can provide jobs and become important building blocks in a community. But I also saw families, careers and lives ruined by gambling addiction that devastated locals long after the big-spending tourists went home.

So imagine what happens in a city like Baltimore, where a quarter of the 622,000 residents live below the poverty line. One of the first places that tried urban gambling is Detroit. And last I checked, that hadn't worked out so well.

As Maryland opened its first urban casino, the state lottery commission also reported a second year of decreased sales. The first drop in 15 years came last year, right after the Maryland Live casino opened near the Arundel Mills Mall.

But look at the success of that glittery behemoth on what was shopping mall parking lot! Maryland Live raked in nearly $53 million in July, according to the state gaming commission.

First of all, it's pretty stunning to think there's $53 million lying around for folks to throw away in a casino. The bigger question is this: What's going to happen to that stream of money now that gamblers from Baltimore can just take the city bus — the 51 line is changing its route to go through some of the city's poorest neighborhoods on the way to the casino — instead of going to Arundel Mills?

And that pool of cash the Arundel Mills folks are swimming in is going to take another hit in two years, once MGM Grand opens the bazillion-dollar gaming emporium at National Harbor in southern Maryland.

The downtown Baltimore casino is the fifth to open in Maryland, which legalized slots in 2008 and table games in 2012. Gambling proponents argued successfully that Maryland would keep some of the gambling millions going to neighboring Delaware and West Virginia.


But now Maryland casinos that were all about keeping cash within state lines are beginning to devour one another's business. Among the country's 40 states that now allow casino gambling, Maryland is becoming one of the most saturated markets.

The whole thing is a shortsighted race to the bottom. The casinofication of America has become a ridiculous game of states competing with one another for a limited pool of cash. There are only so many ways you can squeeze more money out of bettors.

We like to make ourselves feel good about the jobs and tax revenue these ventures bring. In Maryland, gambling has generated about 5,000 jobs, and it pumped about $300 million into the state's coffers in fiscal 2014.

But there's a huge shell game going on. Four casinos will be closing in Atlantic City by summer's end. There's a constant death watch in Las Vegas. This summer, I visited my home town in Nevada, where casinos were reporting a 22 percent drop in revenue compared with summertime last year.

So it's difficult to believe that the best bet for the future of Baltimore is to build it on the backs of some of the city's most vulnerable residents.