. . . but gambling stumbles getting out of Easton gate


EASTON -- There are two ways to look at what transpired here last evening in the first of four public hearings designed to help answer the knotty question, is legalized gambling in the best interests of the state of Maryland.

Gather up the kids and meet me in the car, Wilma, ruination and damnation are surely at hand for the Free State.

Or, the route the hometown newspaper chose. The Star-Democrat's front page lead was "St. Michaels looking for a good bell ringer," and getting second play was, "Barrel-making, a dying trade, alive on Shore."

If nothing else, the event had to be what Ross Perot had in mind when he came up with his "Town Meeting America" idea for solving the country's ills during the last presidential campaign. Steamy hot at 4 o'clock in the afternoon and the Historical Society of Talbot County was packed, as were the stairs leading up to the second-story auditorium on S. Washington Street.

Signing up to express their views (and a whole lot more as it turned out) before Gov. Parris Glendening's task force to study the question were more than five dozen in opposition to commercial gaming ever darkening our shores. A dozen were in favor.

For openers, this is a task force that obviously isn't up to tasking yet, just one of five blue-ribbon panelists being on hand. Consequently, the Guv ran the show and, despite his best efforts, things got off slowly when a few folks obviously forgot what "proponents" means and started to rail against.

Ed Young, general manager of Delmarva Downs, said "racing always gets destroyed" when it is in proximity to casino gambling, "and Delmarva closing would do more than force thousands into unemployment lines, it would force the horsemen to sell their farms. Racing is just not a tradition, it's a way of life."

Those opposed to the legislature even considering the gambling question loved it. Glendening asked that applause be held as it was quite apparent on which side of the question the 200-plus people in the hall stood (and sat). Young had loaded the bases; the opposition couldn't wait for its cleanup hitter, Ocean City Mayor Roland E. "Fish" Powell, who had brought a busload of folks with him from O.C.

But Mighty Casey would strike out (more later).

In issues such as gambling, spending money, legalizing this or that, raising taxes, building jails or stadiums, those opposed bring a great deal of emotion with them. While in this case it denotes the feeling of the majority, it doesn't necessarily coincide with what's best. Remember, a second Bay Bridge span got voted down.

The Guv repeated the two basic charges to the task force: "First, it is to advise the legislature on House Bill 995, 'Is gambling wise for Maryland?' And, if approved, give a best judgment how gaming should be brought in."

The people with the studies, the surveys and varying degrees of expertise now had the floor and they made hay with any objective listeners who may have been in the audience. There must have been at least a half-dozen.

Richard Klemp, a spokesman for Harrah's Casinos, a firm based in Atlantic City that operates 16 casinos in eight states, read from a report his company prepared for the task force. He predicted with almost absolute certainty that legal gambling would be in all the states (and Washington, D.C.) surrounding Maryland shortly save for Delaware ("which will go to slot machines").

Then, Klemp hit them with the numbers: 28 million customers at either seven land-based or six dockside operations with 11 million of them being out-of-state tourists. More than 25,000 jobs, "and not minimum-wage jobs either." About $675 million in salaries. More than $450 million in state tax revenue. "All this would be produced without deals or giveaways."

As usually happens when he shows up and simply recites the numbers of surveys and studies, the man from Harrah's was hit (( with the, "yeah, but look at Atlantic City."

Klemp doesn't deny that any notions that the New Jersey gambling center was about to return to past glories of the '30s were false: "Hey, I certainly wouldn't buy a house there as an investment. We [Harrah's] certainly wouldn't want to duplicate Atlantic City anywhere else.

"But since 1978 when casino gambling went in there, 40,000 permanent, good-paying jobs were produced and Atlantic County has been a big winner. The money [from gambling] goes to the state, but none of it comes back to the city and it remains a depressed and decayed area."

In reply to claims that crime shoots up and gambling centers immediately turn into modern-day Sodom and Gomorrahs, Klemp calmly cited facts such as the state of Missouri already realizing that gaming taxes are the fifth-largest source of revenues it has despite opening just 14 months ago.

"Benefits are tangible and positive if things are done right," he said, "which means bringing in the right people. Doing things right includes limiting licenses and establishing a strong gaming commission. Strong control is essential."

Now came Fish Powell. He spoke of being "an Ocean City brat" and recalling "the days we had gambling in Ocean City, oh yeah. I could get in those place when I was 16 or 17 and get a drink of whiskey, if I wanted. All the money went to four families." He didn't name them but, obviously, one of them was not the Powells.

"Chicken farming was the big industry then and I remember the farmers bringing money in in bushel baskets. Once a man lost $30,000 in no time at all. After the war [1945], the farmer's farms were gone."

He predicted any money the state might receive would be gobbled up by the costs of addiction centers, police and other services, welfare, unemployment, etc., "and after 10 years, gambling will be as big a problem as drugs are today."

Ocean City's position is gambling anywhere in the state will ultimately end up hurting it. Folks who scoff at O.C.'s longtime claim of being strictly "family-oriented" point out there's already gambling at Delmarva Downs. What's the difference if you're betting on a horse race or some other game of chance? Just recently, Bally Entertainment Corp. saved the racetrack by loaning the horsemen's group, Cloverleaf Enterprises, $10.5 million to buy the place.

If casino gambling does come, Harrah's, Bally, Las Vegas-based Mirage Resorts and several other corporations would bid to set up the casinos. We probably would see one on the Eastern Shore and most of the others where the people are, between Baltimore and Washington and the wealthy suburbs.

The next "Town Meeting Maryland" plays Prince George's County Aug. 17, then it's on to Cumberland Sept. 18 and Baltimore sometime in October, probably when Pope John Paul II visits. The task force will have its report ready in December before the legislative session in January.

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