Arundel slots proposal divides the community

The Baltimore Sun

Perhaps more than in any other place in Maryland, the debate over whether to allow slot-machine gambling hits home in Anne Arundel County, where the state's largest slots parlor might be built squarely in suburbia.

Royce Clark owns a small salon and spa near the entrance of Laurel Park horse track, so far the only confirmed bidder for a slots license if voters approve a gambling referendum in November. Clark hopes a glitzy slots venue in her backyard would bring in more customers.

But Jim Tull, who lives a block from Clark's shop and commutes across his lawn to a tiny musical instrument repair shop, said potential benefits from slots aren't worth the risk of bored housewives and other residents becoming addicted. He is opposed even though he figures he could retire richly in a few years by selling his property, which would be in a prime commercial location if slots come.

"I'd love to be a millionaire," Tull said as he tinkered with his tools, "but not at any price."

The four other locations that could be authorized in November are in more rural or heavily urbanized areas, but the Anne Arundel site cuts through bedroom communities between Baltimore and Washington.

The issue has split residents, business owners and politicians. While some say slots would bring economic development and a cash infusion to local government, others say slots would hamper efforts to transform the area into a high-tech corridor for military and intelligence jobs.

Under the proposal, a slots facility could be built anywhere in the county within two miles of Interstate 295. Locations other than the track have been mentioned, including the area around Arundel Mills mall and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, as well as a closed German restaurant and polka hall in Jessup.

But only Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns Laurel Park, has announced its intent to bid for a slots license and has pledged to donate as much as $2 million to a pro-slots public relations campaign. Baltimore developer David Cordish has expressed interest in an Anne Arundel slots license but has not contributed to efforts to get the referendum passed.

Attitudes toward slots are so divided that even if the referendum passes, the issue is not expected to be settled quickly. County officials say zoning laws must be changed to allow the machines, setting up a potential post-election battle on the County Council, where several members are vocal opponents.

County Executive John R. Leopold, a slots foe, has remained neutral on the referendum and says he hasn't decided whether he would fight rezoning in the county to authorize such gambling if the measure passes.

The Republican said he will scrutinize the election results at the state, county, and neighborhood level before deciding how to proceed.

"I don't want to step on the voice of the people," he said.

But statewide surveys showing support for more gambling mask the concerns of those most affected by huge slots dens, he said. If voters were asked whether they would support the facilities within a few miles of their homes, the opposition would be overwhelming, Leopold said.

Laurel Park sits at the junction of Anne Arundel, Howard and Prince George's counties. Since its opening in 1911, thousands of homes have sprung up around it.

While the racetrack is boxed in by major thoroughfares, many residents complain that those roads are too congested now. And some local officials say law enforcement would have to be beefed up and that water and sewer lines would have to be overhauled if the facility were expanded.

Opponents also have raised the specter of a slots parlor dampening the promise of thousands of new jobs coming to the area through a national military base realignment. Both Fort Meade - a big winner in the realignment plan - and the National Security Agency are located in the county.

Councilman Jamie Benoit, a lawyer and former Army officer whose district includes Laurel Park, said the proximity of slots would discourage companies from locating in the area and could pose national security concerns.

"It's very close to the most secure defense facility in the world, and its employees are literally going to be able to go over there at lunch, and that to me is just bad policy," said Benoit, a Democrat. "And the fact is, there is a big military community here, and these casinos will largely prey upon our soldiers who in many cases are struggling anyway because they don't get paid much money to serve our country.

"I have higher hopes for my community," he said.

But slots proponents say those concerns strain credulity and point out that soldiers can go to any number of nearby places to play Keno or the lottery. Officials with Fort Meade and the NSA declined to take a position.

Summer Barkley, a spokeswoman at the Army installation, called slots "a state issue." NSA spokesman Pat Bomgardner said: "We wouldn't comment on something that politically charged."

The Anne Arundel venue could house nearly one in three slot machines allowed in the state, or up to 4,750, in what is expected to be the most lucrative parlor in Maryland. State officials say they expect strong competition for the license.

Affiliates of Arundel Mills mall have expressed interest in the past, though the current owner, Simon Property Group Inc., specializes in retail and does not own any gambling venues. A company spokesman declined to comment.

Another rumored location has been Blob's Park, the restaurant and dance hall, though the owners have not announced any plans. A Web site for the park, billed as an authentic Bavarian beer garden, says it is closed for renovation and opening under new management.

While some industry observers say Laurel Park would have a built-in advantage when bidding for a slots license because it already offers gambling, Canada-based Magna, which also owns Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, has lost money since 2002, including $114 million last year, and state lawmakers have questioned its management.

Maryland Racing Commission Chairman John B. Franzone said Magna might join with an established gambling company to bolster its bid. He said that the site, at 360 acres, could accommodate other entertainment, retail and restaurants to become a "mini-Las Vegas."

Laurel Park could benefit from a requirement that the commission awarding slots licenses consider the impact on existing jobs.

A slots parlor at another site could lure gamblers from Laurel Park and speed its decline. Lobbyists for the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates the track, failed to persuade lawmakers to narrow the Anne Arundel area eligible for slots but supported the jobs language.

Slots have long been sought as a way to rescue Maryland's ailing horse racing industry, as neighboring states have used slots to offer bigger purses, drawing better horses and bigger crowds.

Laurel Park has reduced the number of days it offers live racing and seen wagering at the facility decline in recent years. Despite special events such as Track Diva Day and College Pride Day to draw a younger crowd and more women, on many days the clientele is dominated by male retirees watching races elsewhere that are simulcast at the facility.

Architects have drawn up renovation plans over the years to accommodate slots, but those were shelved when the General Assembly gridlocked on the issue.

"Maryland was a leader in the industry, and to fall from that position to where we are literally hanging on the end of a thread, almost like someone hanging from a cliff by their fingernails, is very sad," said Joseph A. DeFrancis, a former owner of the Jockey Club. "If the referendum doesn't pass, I truly believe that the horse racing industry will die in Maryland."

According to a fiscal analysis, slots would bring up to $100 million annually to augment racing purses and help the horse breeding industry in Maryland, and about $25 million a year in local aid - an amount that would dwarf the local impact fees of about $240,000 that Laurel Park now pays. The licensee also would be required to invest as much as $238 million in construction and related costs.

"It's in the people's hands now, where it should have been in the first place. You can't leave it up to the politicians," said Foard Wilgis, a horse breeder based at Laurel Park. "I just hope the voters pass it."

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