Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and community leaders say they are adamantly opposed to year-round slot machines at the Timonium fairgrounds -- an idea that appears to be gaining currency as the state fair board actively seeks the devices as a way to finance the annual fair that opens today.
Fair officials acknowledge that slots would change the nature of the facility: Gone would be the craft shows common on the fairgrounds during most of the year. But, they say, slots would bring in more money to support the fair and pay for student scholarships and agricultural programs that are sponsored by the nonprofit fair board. The board, largely a bystander in the slots debate this year, has voted to push for the machines when the General Assembly meets in January.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who met with fair leaders this week, said the idea is worth exploring and fits with his belief that a state-controlled slots operation could pump far more money into the state treasury than other alternatives that have been considered.
But Baltimore County officials and community leaders are saying "no dice" to slots at Timonium.
Smith said the fairgrounds is not a suitable location for a huge slots emporium with thousands of machines.
"This changes the dynamics of what is a family-oriented state fair," the county executive said. "It sets up a whole new context for the fairgrounds. ... I'm opposed to slots in Timonium, and I do not think the people of Baltimore County want slots at the Timonium fairgrounds."
Nearby residents overwhelmingly oppose slots at Timonium, said state Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who represents the area that includes the fairgrounds. He said the York Road corridor is congested.
"We do not need more economic development in that area," Brochin said. "It's saturated. Northwest Baltimore, where Pimlico [Race Course] is, does need economic development, and they need the jobs there."
Frank Regan, president of the Greater Timonium Community Council, said his group opposes any move to put a slots casino at the fairgrounds. The council is an umbrella group for 40 community associations that represent about 60,000 people.
"This is definitely the wrong place for a slots casino," Regan said. "We have and will continue to vigorously oppose it."
Busch said he went with other state leaders to Timonium to meet with fair officials because he saw the fairgrounds as "a good starting point" to examine how a state-owned slots operation might work.
The fairgrounds is the only noncommercial racetrack with an interest in having slots, he said, and would offer taxpayers a far better financial return than a slots proposal that was floated early this year.
A proposal by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. that was supported by Senate Democrats would have allowed four commercial racetracks to build slots parlors with thousands of machines. Slightly less than half the proceeds would have gone to the state treasury under that plan. Ehrlich designated a portion of slots proceeds for the fair, but that element was dropped in the plan approved by the Senate. The bill died in the House.
Busch suggested yesterday that the state could lease property from the state fair board, have the Maryland Stadium Authority build a facility and pay a casino company to manage the slots operations.
The Maryland Lottery Commission would own the machines, he said.
He said he was only exploring the idea and wasn't making a specific proposal to put slots at Timonium.
"We used Timonium as a starting place," Busch said. "I'm not saying this location is going to be selected or that we're going to go forward with any slots legislation. All we're trying to do is to get information on how the state could have more control and greater profitability than was in the plan that was put forward earlier this year. We are going to look at other sites."
Busch said he has not changed his view that slots are a bad bet for Maryland. But he said he has a responsibility to study all aspects of slots and report back to members of the House of Delegates.
Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Ehrlich, said the governor doesn't share Busch's view that the Timonium fairgrounds is an appropriate venue for slots.
She said Ehrlich is pleased that Busch is open to the idea of allowing slot machines in the state, "which wasn't the case during the legislative session."
DeLeaver said Ehrlich still "favors the approach he proposed and supported during the last legislative session." But she said he is open to other ideas.
For their part, fair officials say they are excited by the possibility of bringing slots to the fairgrounds.
Max Mosner, president of the state fair, said slots could bring in money that could be used to repair or replace buildings at the fairgrounds and pay for programs.
Mosner said fair officials have seen what slots money can do at the Delaware state fairgrounds -- site of a racetrack casino at Harrington Raceway.
Allowing slots would change the nature of the fairgrounds, he conceded.
"If we have a slots operation, the week-in, week-out craft shows, they're gone," Mosner said. "We could still do four or five agricultural events a year, but we would not be able to do the kinds of shows that attract 40,000 people on a weekend."