Slots seen as good bet Some neighbors want gambling machines operating at Pimlico; 'Anything would help'; Residents seek jobs and more police to battle drug dealing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Some are almost gushing in their enthusiasm for the idea. Others border on grudging acceptance of it.

But whatever their attitudes, many neighbors of Pimlico Race Course are willing to place their bets on slots in the hopes that expanded gambling at the track will better their battered communities.

As the annual spotlight shines on the Pimlico-Park Heights area of Northwest Baltimore with Saturday's 123rd running of the Preakness Stakes -- and as Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's endorsement of Eileen M. Rehrmann promises to put the focus on gambling in this year's Democratic gubernatorial primary -- a number of residents and community leaders are convinced that putting slot machines at the track will help solve the area's

problems, not increase them.

At the same time, hardly any of those interviewed there last week said they were ready to follow Schmoke's lead and vote for Rehrmann, the Harford County executive who favors racetrack slots, against incumbent Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who adamantly opposes them.

Johnny Clinton is one who believes slot machines would ensure that the race course remains in the neighborhood, create jobs and and increase police presence, which could disrupt the daily ritual of street-corner drug sales.

"I feel like slots would help this community," said Clinton, past president of the Pimlico Merchants Association and owner of the Park Heights Barber Shop, where Schmoke gets his hair cut. "I can't see where they would hurt.

"People in this neighborhood are concerned about getting jobs, being safe," he added. "Right now, anything would help."

Give residents a voice

The backing of businesses might be expected, but slots have support among social service providers as well.

"We are in favor of it as long as the community has input," said Shirley Pollard, a board member of the nonprofit Park Heights Community Center, which provides emergency housing, food and clothing, and job counseling and workshops. "We see it as a creator of jobs."

But Pollard says her group remains unswayed by Schmoke's endorsement of Rehrmann.

"That's his own personal opinion. He's entitled to support who he wants," she said. "Right now, our position is to support our current governor."

Not everyone agrees that slots would help the Pimlico and Park Heights neighborhoods.

Fear of increased crime

Elaine Walker, who lives in a nearby senior housing complex, said she's "definitely" against slot machines.

"It'll encourage more crime," said Walker, barely pausing while folding her clothes at a Park Heights Avenue coin laundry. "It's enough crime already."

Cleo Sutton, a day care worker, has another concern.

"The poor class of people would be the ones using the slot machines," said Sutton, who was dropping off her grandchild at Park Heights Elementary School. "It's the same way with the lottery."

And some are undecided, saying the key question is finding a way to bolster the race course, which is part of an ailing industry and must compete with Delaware racetracks that draw patrons with hundreds of slot machines. The answer might or might not involve slots, they say.

"The point we'll be trying to make increasingly is that a solution to the situation of Pimlico Race Course needs to be found," said Donald Giller, vice president for strategic development at Sinai Health System, which abuts the track. "A closed racetrack would be unhealthy."

A coalition of neighborhood groups, the Pimlico Racetrack Neighborhoods Task Force, has shied from taking a position, pending completion of a study of the impact slots could have on the neighborhoods.

"The neighborhoods need to know what the impact will be from a physical traffic standpoint, but more important from a social standpoint," said Alfred W. Barry III, head of a private planning firm that is advising the coalition.

Too much crime, too few jobs

By almost any measure, the area is suffering. The closest blocks to the track, a neighborhood known as Pimlico Good Neighbors, is an enclave of tidy, if modest, brick and frame houses with market values of around $50,000.

But travel a little farther, into Park Heights, and you'll see vacant houses, trashed alleys and desolate street corners filled with people with too little to do.

According to the most recent census figures, per-capita income in the neighborhood is $8,400. One in four households is receiving public assistance and one of 13 dwellings is vacant.

"If anything, those numbers have gotten worse" since the 1990 survey, said Barry, who formerly held the No. 2 position in the city's planning department.

To some, Preakness preparations highlight the sense of neglect in Park Heights and Pimlico. For one day, extra city police and sanitation crews make sure the area is safe and clean for visitors, they say. The rest of the time, problems are ignored or overlooked.

"This area does not get the proper attention," said Jean Yarborough, president of the Park Heights Networking Community Council. "We feel we are the forgotten area of the city."

Some fear that the area is being left out again as the issue of slots moves to the forefront.

"Right now, I think we're a pawn in the middle of a game," said Florine Robinson, who chairs the task force and has lived a few furlongs from the track for nearly three decades.

"I haven't heard anything from the mayor about change in the community, change in the way it looks. I've only heard him say, 'Slots for education, slots for tots.' Park Heights is not cleaned up, and we're the ones bearing the burden."

Slots seem inevitable

No matter their feelings, many believe it is all but inevitable that there will be slot machines at Pimlico Race Course -- even if Glendening, whose often-repeated anti-gambling refrain is "No slots, no casinos, no exceptions," is re-elected.

"I just believe that slots are going to come," said Brenda Strong, who lives two blocks from the track. "It's basically a matter of time. It's up to the neighborhood to state our demands so we're not swept under the rug."

That might help explain why Strong and others so far are unpersuaded by Schmoke's backing of Rehrmann, who promises to makes slots happen sooner rather than later.

"I'll make up my own mind," she said. "I don't know the lady. I have no knowledge of her."

Yarborough, a past Schmoke political supporter who says she has not made up her mind about slots, says that won't be the only issue that determines whether the community goes for Glendening or Rehrmann, the mayor's endorsement notwithstanding.

"People are going to look at their records," she said.

Even Johnny Clinton, who says he is perplexed by Glendening's stand on gambling and says Schmoke is right to support Rehrmann, doesn't expect the mayor's backing to turn the election.

"I feel Eileen Rehrmann will run well," he said. "I don't see her winning."

Pub Date: 5/11/98

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