LITTLE ORLEANS -- To its 285 families, the idea of political activism in this tiny Allegany County town was once about as ridiculous as turning one of their quiet farms into a thoroughbred racetrack.
Suffice to say, they have had a couple of surprises lately.
In February, William Rickman Jr., the Montgomery County developer who owns Delaware Park near Wilmington, bought a 140-acre farm here and began making plans for a track that would draw 1,000 spectators on race days and several hundred on other days for simulcast wagering. Rickman is competing with the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, for a state license to build a track in western Maryland.
Residents here -- accustomed to outsiders in the guise of campers, fishermen, hunters or Interstate 68 drivers seeking the bathroom at the Exxon station -- were shocked.
They fear that a track would attract crime, noise and traffic to their unincorporated community, and they have begun to do something unprecedented: mobilize.
"This is a nonintrusive community, where a neighbor would help you but doesn't have his nose in your business," says Dave Brigham, president of the town's newly formed Committee Against the Racecourse. "It was a little difficult for people to know how to attack the situation. There was never a need to organize. You basically had what you wanted."
Little Orleans residents have spent the past two months learning to play politics -- an unfamiliar process that at times has been daunting.
At a March 1 zoning hearing, when they confronted Rickman and his attorneys and consultants, committee leaders say the developer and the county board of zoning appeals treated them as naifs.
Some might have unwittingly lent credence to such a view: at the public hearing, one resident opposing the track compared Little Orleans to fictitious Mayberry of "The Andy Griffith Show."
The town has appointed an attorney -- he owns a weekend home here but has no experience in zoning and land-use issues -- who has filed an appeal in Allegany County Circuit Court to block Rickman from proceeding. A hearing has been set for Sept. 8.
"We're not a bunch of bumpkins," says Charles Nalls, the Washington international trade litigator representing them. "They are angry. They are mobilized. And they are good, decent people, the way old Maryland people are. They deserve a shot at maintaining their community."
Little Orleans is a smattering of farms, houses and trailers in the only sliver of Allegany County east of Green Ridge State Forest with any noticeable population. Residents say jokingly that county officials from Cumberland don't know that anyone lives east of Flintstone and rarely visit the area.
The community is home to a mix of people: fourth-generation farmers, construction workers who retired here to hunt, professionals and federal employees who have weekend homes or brave a daily two-hour commute to Washington or Baltimore. It has a few businesses; residents gather each Sunday morning at one they call "the mall" -- it's the Exxon station -- to buy coffee and a newspaper and spend time with friends.
Most are bound by the belief that their quiet place was far enough west and sufficiently remote to be spared major development. Whether they farm or fish or hike or hang out on the back porch on warm nights, these are people who like quietude.
"It's not unusual on summer evenings that the wife's got a picnic supper packed and we'll go eat along the river and do a little fishing until 10 o'clock or so," says Bill Valentine, a 50-year-old plumbing and heating contractor fighting the racetrack. "You know there'll be a PA system blaring 12 hours a day. It's a lot of traffic, a lot of noise."
Committed to the project
Rickman says he bought the property in Little Orleans -- a flat expanse that abuts Interstate 68 and cost the developer $650,000 -- to show his commitment to the project, despite remaining obstacles: He's won county zoning approval, but faces the appeal from Little Orleans residents to overturn it.
The Maryland Jockey Club -- battling to win the license from the Maryland Racing Commission to build a track -- has in mind a site in Frostburg, which is significantly more developed. The commission has until October to make its decision.
Little Orleans seemed ideal, Rickman says, because it's flat, unlike much of Allegany County, and would draw enthusiasts from an untapped market, especially Hagerstown. He wants to hold 21 live racing days a year -- probably over seven long weekends -- and keep the track open almost every other day of the year for simulcast betting. As part of the $13 million project, Rickman also wants to open several new off-track betting parlors around the state.
He says the quality of life in Little Orleans will not suffer. But "for those who oppose gambling, there is little we can do," Rickman says. "We're in the gambling business."
Members of the Committee Against the Racecourse say gambling is only one issue that concerns them. They also say Rickman underestimated to zoning officials how much water his track would pull from the local supply, a sensitive issue in an area that has suffered from water shortages. Eighty residents attended the latest committee meeting last week, overflowing into the kitchen at a tiny Methodist church.
'Without political power'
Local politicians have not been forthcoming about where to locate the proposed racecourse. House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat, spearheaded the effort to bring a track to western Maryland to create jobs and expand the tax base. Allegany County commissioners have supported the plan, but have not expressed a preference for Rickman's proposed track in Little Orleans, or the Jockey's Club's proposed track in Frostburg.
"If only we had one politician" opposed to the track, says Brigham, a retired U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs official who has a "Please -- No racetrack" sign on his front lawn. "We're without political power and without a lot of money. On paper, we're dead losers. But do we have issues that are winnable?"
The horse-racing industry has denied claims that tracks attract crime and says its fans often are depicted inaccurately.
An industry-sponsored survey conducted at last year's Breeders' Cup Championship, at Gulfstream Park in Florida, found that the average household income of race-goers was $94,000, 71 percent were homeowners, and 32 percent held senior executive, professional, managerial or administrative occupations. The survey acknowledged that people who attend "marquee thoroughbred events" rate higher than national averages in several categories.
Malcolm Commer Jr., associate professor and extension livestock economist at the University of Maryland, says Rickman's proposed short racing schedule suggests that the track would not have a major impact.
"If it's a 21-day season, I don't see it as there being a significant effect on quality of life," he says.
Tax dollars, jobs
About 120 miles away in central Pennsylvania, the farming community of Grantville, with about 150 residents, has been home to Penn National Racecourse for almost three decades. Becki Oller, a township supervisor, says that, especially after the 1972 opening of the track, residents claimed that suddenly there was more crime and litter. However, she says, the community and its businesses have come to depend on the track.
"There have been complaints," she says. "But there are things we appreciate. They bring in tax dollars and they provide jobs."
"Downtown" Little Orleans has little besides Bill's Place, a tavern and grocery where hunters register the wild turkeys they kill on the mountain. The town has no elected officials -- though a sign near the bar at Bill's announces "Mayor's Office."
Owner Bill Schoenadel refused to sign the petition opposing the new track. He says he's not taking a position, but notes that the track would draw customers for his $1.85 hamburgers and $5.95 haddock dinners. "My prices will be lower," Schoenadel says. "It will bring more people here."
Opponents say they have the support of about 80 percent of their community.
Evelyn Hartley, 70, lives across the street from the track site on a farm her husband's family settled about 1850. When Rickman asked whether he could buy a small piece of her property to help develop the track, she refused, hoping it would dissuade him from building in Little Orleans.
"Why destroy a beautiful, peaceful, little agricultural community like this?" she said. "We need a few of these kinds of places."