"Maryland, home of the casinos. Everywhere. The sky is the limit. Put your money down and go for the big payoff."
Fantasy? Not for long, it appears. Casino gambling is knocking ++ at Maryland's door, and the state's political and business leaders are doing little to stop it. In fact, some are giving signs of wanting to push the door open as soon as possible.
Bally's gambling empire is getting ready to expand into harness racing with a deal that could lead to casinos at Rosecroft and Delmarva Downs and a 50 percent ownership of the two harness tracks. Many harness horsemen are eager to get on the casino bandwagon early.
Representatives of Pimlico and Laurel left a hearing on casinos by a Maryland Chamber of Commerce panel convinced the panelists had made up their minds to take a bullish position on expanded gambling.
Casinos are pouring fortunes into the pockets of lobbyists to soften up legislators for next year's General Assembly session. Among the more craven lawmakers, that strategy is working. And Gov. Parris Glendening, by remaining on the sidelines, gives quiet comfort to casino interests. He's been slow to name a casino-study commission, which hurts his ability to influence events. By the time the commission reports back, it may be too late.
What casino operatives are offering is money. Lots of it. For lobbyists. For jobs. For political campaigns. For the harness-racing tracks. For government coffers. Whatever the problem, casinos have the answer: gambling money. Maryland would gain 31,000 jobs from a nine-casino set-up, the casino interests claim -- enough to satisfy the patronage demands of some greedy legislators and create a windfall for local governments. It sounds too good to be true. And it is.
While casino interests are hot to arrange elegant tours of casino operations in Nevada, the place where Maryland leaders should be heading is Atlantic City. But not to the casinos. The real story is what casinos have done for that resort city.
Nearly 20 years after casinos came to the Boardwalk, Atlantic City is a shell of its former self. The middle class has left. Not a single supermarket is to be found. No movie houses. Nothing except those glittering casino towers and tawdry Boardwalk shops. If Maryland is serious about embracing casinos, it should ask about the influence of organized crime in Atlantic City, about the rise in prostitution and violent crime, about the casinos' failure to invest in uplifting the community, about the negative impact on restaurants, about the demise of that resort's reputation as a family vacation spot.
Bring in casinos and the climate of this state will change.
Once casinos opened in Atlantic City, crime soared, especially drug trafficking. Casino influences corrupted a score of top city officials. Organized crime developed a stranglehold on trade unions linked to casino construction and operations; they dominated businesses supplying the casino-hotels. Promised money for housing redevelopment never materialized.
Here's what a Twentieth Century Fund study found five years after the advent of Atlantic City casinos:
* There was a massive increase in taxable property wealth, but land speculation displaced the poor and middle-class and virtually drove commercial life out of town. Municipal expenditures related to casinos consumed most of the new tax revenue and pushed the city's infrastructure "to the breaking point."
* The state received a big revenue boost, but casinos never delivered on promises of new dollars for the elderly. Atlantic City's decline has required more state aid, erasing the notion casinos are "a truly 'free' new source of revenue."
* Some 30,000 jobs were created, but few for city residents. Non-casino businesses suffered. "The basic core of the unemployed and welfare recipients of the city has not been significantly diminished by the advent of the casinos."
Casino interests are playing hardball in Maryland. So far, we've heard the positives of casinos. What about such questions as: Can an industry based on greed be effectively policed? What are the crime implications? What businesses and industries will suffer? What happens to the quality of life in Maryland? What new expenses will governments incur?
The central point is the impact on the community. What every legislator and business leader ought to ask is this: Do I want a casino opening near my home, near my company, near my neighborhood? There are social and societal ramifications that no one has even mentioned so far in this debate.
E9 Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.