2 sides of track, 2 views of slots

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Paul Blinken steps outside his Park Heights Avenue shoe store, just one block south of Pimlico Race Course, and sees four decades of decay that only slot machines at the racetrack can now reverse, he believes.

But literally across the track, to the north, is the stable, solidly middle-class neighborhood of Mount Washington, with its many stately homes on large lots. To a growing number of residents, like Aaron Meisner, slots pose a threat to their quality of life and soaring property values.

Over the years, Pimlico has emerged as a 140-acre buffer between two communities as different as opinions emerging about Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s slot machine proposal.

While the scope and fate of the proposal are up in the air, if approved it promises to help lift the state out of a $1.8 billion deficit while kicking money back to communities around tracks at Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft in Prince George's County.

City officials are skittish about supporting gambling - long considered by many a social ill - but may be willing to give the effort a try if it means a windfall of money for neighborhoods and doesn't burden local government with traffic and public safety problems.

When Blinken walks along Park Heights Avenue, he sees a mishmash of facades and signs - some big, some small, all different colors and letter sizes - posted above storefront doors and windows that at night are locked and covered by metal rolldown shields to keep thieves out.

Litter is strewn along the curbs, some of it having blown off overflowing garbage cans. Youngsters in puffy coats and knit hats hang outside the stores on the block for hours, even in cold weather.

"It's a hodge-podge. This area has been an eyesore for a long time," said Blinken, owner of Cinderella Shoe Shop, in the 5100 block of Park Heights Ave., since 1961. The possibility that some slot revenue will trickle back to the Park Heights community is the last hope Blinken has for revitalization.

Ehrlich has proposed placing 10,500 slot machines at four tracks, which he projects will draw $600 million in revenue for the state in their first full year of operation and more in ensuing years.

The governor's proposal would divert 3 percent of slot revenues to the city and counties where the racetracks are located, to pay for such costs as extra police and road improvements.

'I want it legislated'

Some legislators have talked about earmarking some of the funds specifically for the communities around the racetracks, money Park Heights and City Council leaders want to use for beautification projects. And a Pimlico official said 1,000 new, largely unskilled-labor jobs will be available if slots come on line. Those items are what most Park Heights residents and merchants are excited about.

"I have no problems with slots coming if they bring revenue," said Jean Yarborough, president of the Park Heights Networking Council. "I don't want promises, I want it legislated. Because if it isn't legislated, promises go out the door."

Pimlico officials have planned a $200 million project to raze and rebuild the track and its facilities, incorporating space for slots, said Joseph A. De Francis, chief executive of the Pimlico and Laurel tracks.

De Francis said construction would provide temporary jobs and the new facility would offer permanent employment.

"Once the facility is constructed, we estimate there will be 1,000 new jobs, from valet parkers to maintenance, to security and food service personnel and accounting," De Francis said.

De Francis called the slots proposal a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" for track owners to make money and for Park Heights to rebound.

Supporting gambling in a city troubled by drugs and violent crime is tricky for some leaders.

"Overall, I just don't support slots period," said City Council President Sheila Dixon, who called slots an "added addiction."

"And I guess for Baltimore, I am more afraid of slots deteriorating the city rather than building the city up," she said.

But instead of spending energy fighting the proposal, Dixon said, she will act on behalf of Park Heights residents who seem to want the slots and ensure that a percentage of the revenue is sent a block away to the community.

Mayor Martin O'Malley has called Ehrlich's slot proposal a "gambling gimmick," complaining that, at 3 percent, impact aid for the city would fall short of what would be needed.

Yet, the mayor supports having slots at Pimlico and thinks both sides of the track - Park Heights and Mount Washington - will eventually be happy with the idea.

"The neighborhoods on the north side of Northern Parkway are concerned about traffic congestion, pollution and trash," O'Malley said. "And the neighborhoods to the south of the racetrack, while concerned with those same things, are concerned about investments into the community. The key is local aid."

But Meisner, the Mount Washington resident, said any amount of aid will never be enough if it means bringing slots to Pimlico.

"Mount Washington is a family neighborhood," the stockbroker said. "There's nothing good that can come from slots. The lights, the noise, the issue of drunk driving, obviously when you put all that together with an underbuilt infrastructure, there will be problems."

The Rev. Anthony Dorsey of First Baptist Church of Pimlico equates slots to the lottery system, both of which promise money for education.

"I honestly don't see any differences now than the promises that came from the lottery, which was suppose to fix education," Dorsey said. "I can't tell by the education of our children, I can't tell by the quality of our teachers, I can't tell by the school facilities they are in that the lottery helped.

"So, I think it is a ploy using the poor people to bring more money to the rich people who own the track," he said. "It's the same game over and over again."

Two of the major roads leading to Pimlico cut through Mount Washington: Greenspring Avenue off Interstate 695 and Northern Parkway off Interstate 83. And, by some estimates, slots might draw close to 300,000 visitors a month.

By comparison, a rural racetrack with 1,500 slot machines in far less populated Charlestown, W.Va., attracts 180,000 to 200,000 visitors a month, a track spokesman said.

"As it is proposed, [Pimlico] will be one of the largest casinos in the U.S. and naturally no one wants to raise a family near something like that," said Meisner, who has started an anti-slot machine group for his neighborhood, called 21209.org.

The Ehrlich administration has acknowledged not studying the impact of slot gambling on communities around racetracks before making the proposal.

'Would be decimated'

Dan Bierly, a civil engineer, is certain the slot machines will lower the value of his Brambleton Road home, just blocks from Pimlico. Bierly said he would rather pay higher taxes to address the state deficit than live next to a casino.

"I didn't move next to a racetrack to live next to a casino," Bierly said. "You accept the Preakness, that's just once a year. But with slots, my neighborhood would be decimated. It's not so much whether it becomes less desirable, but whether perception is that this is a less desirable place to live."

And Charles Oseroff, a child psychologist who lives in Mount Washington, argues that slots will bring an immoral element to the area.

"We can take a stand against drug abuse and prostitution, but for some reason we say gambling is OK," Oseroff said. "Mount Washington is a rather affluent community, but no one has asked us if we would rather have slots or more taxes."

The community plans to use its influence during a meeting at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18 at the Wesley Home, 2211 W. Rogers Ave., which lawmakers and racetrack and horseracing industry officials are expected to attend.

"There are a lot questions here," Meisner said. "But for some people, it's easy to throw in the towel and move into the county."

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