Benefits of casinos are worth a gamble


On mornings such as this, with the smell of new money in the air, the life of the old vice squad cop, Lt. George Andrew, is recalled as a civics lesson. This goes back maybe 20 years now. Andrew is leading a city police raid on the home of an East Side bookmaker, and as the cops crash into the place they find this bookie in bed with a lady who is not precisely his wife.

"Lieutenant Andrew," the bookie says upon seeing all these officers with guns drawn. "Am I glad to see you."

"What do you mean?" says a perplexed Andrew, for he has arrived to arrest this man.

"When I heard that door crash," says the bookie, "I was afraid it was this woman's husband."

The lesson for the day: In matters relating to gambling, it is best to keep a sense of perspective. For the bookie, an occasional arrest was merely a cost of doing business. For the cops, it was part of the job that carried mixed emotions: Who were these gamblers hurting, that police needed to waste time pursuing them? For the state of Maryland, it was such hypocrisy to declare gambling a crime that, when cooler heads eventually prevailed, the state itself became our biggest hustler.

In such a spirit, may we all stop pretending to be virginal on the issue of casino gambling? Tomorrow in Baltimore, there will be another in a series of hearings on this matter. It follows reports from state fiscal analysts and from business leaders saying casinos would create thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenues, and noting, just to light a little fire under everybody, that neighboring states are looking at their own casino possibilities, so Maryland ought to get itself into gear.

In the face of this, though, we now hear the traditional arguments against casino gambling, trumpeted loudest in the editorials of this newspaper: Casinos bring crime, and they create gambling addicts, and they hurt existing businesses, such as horse racing and lottery playing.

In Atlantic City, it is pointed out, crime has tripled since the arrival of casinos. Could we have a little perspective on this, please? Atlantic City was a ghost town whose population consisted of a few arthritic sea gulls and forlorn longtime residents who'd failed to catch the last wave out of town.

The casino brought millions of new human beings to Atlantic City. Human beings sometimes commit crimes. Of course the crime rate will jump.

(But it's instructive to note that, over the last five years, Atlantic City's crime rate has actually dropped. Police there say violent crimes have declined by nearly 30 percent in that span, and nonviolent crimes by about 40 percent.)

Why mention Atlantic City? Because that's where Baltimore gamblers currently take their money. And, inevitably, they come home with one reaction about the town: It's a mess. The casinos are clean, the boardwalk's making a comeback, but nobody likes to venture beyond that.

"Of course," says a business leader here who wants a casino built near the Inner Harbor. "The casino operators in Atlantic City don't want the town built up. They want you to stay right where you are, at the tables. If there's something else going on that you want to see, you're not gonna be inside the casinos. They have willfully kept Atlantic City dirty."

So what's to keep the same thing from happening to Baltimore?

"Are you kidding?" this businessman says. "We've already got the surrounding area. The harbor's all built up. The only thing we don't have is any life after dark. There's 15 million people at Harborplace every year, and 10 million are out-of-town tourists, and they have no life after 6 o'clock. A complete family entertainment center, with a casino, changes that."

Then, of course, we have the argument that gambling creates poor people squandering their money. Why do we suspect such a thing? Because it already happens, only the state wishes no one would notice this. You walk into a drug store, you've got a state lottery machine. You travel a highway, there's a billboard boasting payoffs. You walk into a bar, there's some soul playing Keno at 8 o'clock in the morning.

Are there people who can't walk away from a bet? Absolutely. And they'll find that bet, whether the casinos arrive here or not.

A new state fiscal report says that one Inner Harbor casino could create 7,124 jobs, bring $38 million in tax revenues, and add $227 million to the local economy.

A casino in Western Maryland, the report said, could create 825,000 new tourists a year, 5,255 jobs, and bring $178 million to the area economy.

In public, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke have expressed their misgivings about gambling. In private, they salivate over the money. So will state legislators, particularly when some of the unions, hungry for new jobs, begin leaning on them this winter.

In the meantime, everyone should remember the lesson of Lt. George Andrew and the bookmaker with the lady not specifically his wife: A sense of perspective. There are worse things than gambling, and some of them could be helped with a roll of the dice.

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