For Maryland's pro- and anti-casino forces, all roads lead to Easton today as a state commission holds the first of four public hearings on the issue.
The meeting is expected to attract people from across the Eastern Shore, including the Mayor of Ocean City and harness-track horsemen from nearby Delmarva Downs Raceway. Bally Entertainment, a Chicago-based casino company, financed the horsemen's purchase of the beleaguered track with plans of possibly expanding gaming there.
"I don't want to see any increase in gambling anywhere," said Ocean City Mayor Roland E. "Fish" Powell, offering a preview of his testimony and echoing the sentiments of many in the shore resort. Mr. Powell said the city has offered to bus Ocean City residents to the hearing. He estimated that 25 might attend.
Casino lobbyists also are expected to attend, but keep a lower profile because the meeting's primary purpose is to hear the concerns of local citizens.
"I plan on attending to observe and listen to the concerns and interests of the people of Maryland and report them back to my client," said lobbyist Edward O. Wayson Jr., who represents Mirage Resorts, the Las Vegas-based gambling giant.
Mr. Wayson said he expected the majority of witnesses to testify against casino gambling. People on the Eastern Shore are "basically rural people and they want to keep a rural flavor," he said.
The meeting will be held at the Historical Society of Talbot County at 25 S. Washington St. It is scheduled to run from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Casino gambling has emerged as a major issue in Maryland during the past year and gaming firms have hired many of Annapolis' top lobbyists in hopes of passing legislation during the 1996 General Assembly session. The push here is part of a recent national trend in which states have legalized casinos in exchange for jobs and hefty taxes on revenues.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening and legislative leaders named the nine-member task force last month to study, among other things, the potential effects of casino gambling on various Maryland industries, including horse racing, hotels, restaurants, agriculture and tourism.
The task force plans to hold additional hearings on Aug. 17 in Prince George's County, Sept. 18 in Cumberland and during October in Baltimore. Panel is scheduled to issue a report in December before the legislative session opens in January.