As mayor, he fought OC slots, but now ...

The Baltimore Sun

Jim Mathias has lived in Ocean City long enough to remember when the big issue was whether to let a McDonald's or a 7-Eleven or some other intruder into town. The one-time mayor and city councilman also remembers the brouhaha over whether to keep the traffic lights on in the winter when OC returned to its sleepy, small-town self, rather than just during the busy summer tourist season.

Change comes slowly and often with great angst to Maryland's summer playground, where much of the appeal is familiarity - the same hotel you went to as a kid, the same boardwalk, the same Thrasher's fries and Fisher's caramel corn, year after year, generation after generation.

"There's something to be said for tradition," said Mathias, who is now a state delegate and faced with voting on one of the biggest changes the city has ever faced: the introduction of slots to a racetrack just outside the city. "But we have to stay competitive."

As mayor, Mathias opposed slots. As delegate, he is open to them, under certain conditions.

"It's a mess," he said yesterday when I reached him in Annapolis where the special legislative session to consider slots and taxes continued into its third week. "How do I walk the line? I'm really on a tightrope here."

The special session has provided almost a surprise a day - from the landscaping service providers who suddenly were included in the sales tax expansion, but then taken out, only to have the computer services people tossed into the mix. But perhaps nowhere has there been as much turmoil as Ocean City, what with proposals to raise the sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent, the hotel tax from 5 percent to 7.5 percent and, most of all, to put slots at Ocean Downs Race Track on U.S. 50 just before you get to OC.

"It's been quite a shock," Annemarie Dickerson said of the goings-on in Annapolis. The owner of the family-oriented Francis Scott Key hotel and resort in Ocean City said that she had come to terms with the sales tax increase, but the inclusion of Ocean Downs in the slots proposal and the House's approval of a rise in the hotel tax came as unwelcome surprises.

"I'm OK with sales tax. It's across the board, and it seems fair. And I know we have to fix the deficit," she said. She had even warned her regulars - about 74 percent of her guests are return customers - to expect the extra sales tax expense when they come "downy ocean" next summer.

"They know to the penny what their budget is," Dickerson said of her cost-conscious customers, whom she caters to with an average $140 room rate and lots of promotions like a free fifth night if you book four.

But for Dickerson and others in Ocean City, the real blow could be slots. Dickerson sank a lot of money into the hotel - which her father bought in the 1970s - to turn it into a family resort, with a playground, a water park, mini-golf and the like. While her location five miles from Ocean Downs seems like it would position her well to cater to gamblers who want to spend a couple of nights nearby, she thinks the two "cultures" just don't mix.

When Ocean Downs appeared on the list of possible sites for slots, "it caught everyone by surprise," Mathias agreed. "Our phones went into meltdown."

While his city's elected officials and its business community remain as strongly opposed to the gaming devices as he was as OC's mayor - the fear is that slots would cannibalize the existing hotels, restaurants and attractions - Mathias has slowly moved toward seeing their possible benefits.

His evolution began several years ago when there was a proposal that would have brought slots to Cambridge, which he feared would steal away some of Ocean City's off-season business meetings and conventions. Eventually, he said, he came to see how slots could help contain the tax increases and keep money that goes to other states at home.

Plus, he sensed many residents wanted slots. This weekend, for example, he attended a barbecue at a volunteer firehouse and was pigeonholed by "three ladies with the auxiliary who got me afterward and said, 'We want our slots.'"

But at the same time, he's under a lot of anti-slots pressure from his former colleagues in municipal government, plus Worcester County, plus the hotels and other OC businesses. The current OC mayor, Rick Meehan, is just one of many leaning on him and the rest of the legislative delegation.

"We expect them not to just say no," Meehan said, "but hell, no."

Meehan is incensed that elected officials of every other jurisdiction except Ocean City were consulted before their locale was included on the list.

Mathias says he will ask that Ocean Downs be removed from consideration as a slots location, but knows that a similar request made in the Senate, by Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, was voted down.

Now, as the House prepares to tackle the slots issue, he's bracing for the fallout, no matter what he does.

"I could be persona non grata back home, a couple of different ways," Mathias said with a sigh. Still, he hopes his history with Ocean City counts for something.

"The people trust me," he said. "They understand my torment."

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