A proposal to build the state's marquee slots parlor in Anne Arundel County hinges on a few undecided local lawmakers who are facing a lobbying onslaught from powerful political and business interests as well as their constituents as they prepare to cast a long-awaited vote on Monday.
The County Council is expected to finally decide whether to allow a slots casino envisioned by the Baltimore developer the Cordish Cos. near Arundel Mills mall. Alternatively, the council could allow slots at another location near the Laurel Park horse racing track - or reject both proposals.
Hours before the County Council meets, a state slots commission is expected to vote to grant a gambling license for the Cordish project. Some commissioners have indicated that they hope the panel's decision would pressure the County Council to approve the necessary zoning.
But even after nine months of wrestling with the issue, it is unclear how the local battle will end. Three of the seven council members say they aren't sure how they'll vote, and four "yes" votes are needed to move the billion-dollar project forward.
"What will happen Monday night is anybody's guess," said Council President Cathleen M. Vitale, who declined to say how she plans to vote.
That means the most lucrative of five potential casino sites hangs in the balance more than a year after voters approved slot-machine gambling in Maryland, including a majority in Anne Arundel.
It is the latest snag that has prevented the full rollout of the state's slots program, which has fallen short of expectations as potential casino developers have failed to submit qualified bids or secure the needed financing.
The Anne Arundel site had been considered a sure bet. State lawmakers envisioned as many as 4,750 slot machines in the county, or nearly one-third of the machines allowed statewide. And many had expected that Laurel Park would house the slot machines that would revitalize the faltering horse racing operation there.
But Magna Entertainment Corp., Laurel Park's parent company, was disqualified from bidding for a slots license when it didn't pay the required fees. The Canadian company later filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Now the track is on the auction block, and the Cordish slots bid is the only one being considered by the commission.
The stakes are high. The Cordish proposal could generate more than $300 million in economic activity as the casino is being built and more than $500 million in annual revenue when fully operational. Nearly half of that revenue would go fund state education, and about $23 million would go to the county in local impact grants.
Donald C. Fry, chairman of the state slots commission, said "there has been some frustration" over delays by the County Council, which had been expected to act first. "We're watching the saga as it moves forward," he said.
Meanwhile, pressure on the council is mounting from several corners.
James Benoit, a Democrat who has been a stalwart opponent of slots, said he has been barraged in recent days by lawmakers, lobbyists and residents urging him to reconsider his vote. The councilman said there's no chance he'll change his mind.
"Everyone's after me," Benoit said. "I've gotten over 100 phone calls in the last few days - politicians and lobbyists - begging me to reconsider. I laid out my position very early on to avoid this. ... It's the Hail Mary desperation."
Disparate interest groups that usually do not weigh in on zoning disputes have stepped into the fray.
The governing body of the county teachers union voted last week to support slots at Arundel Mills, with Executive Director Bill Jones saying that "educational efforts are being severely battered during this economic downturn" and slots will give the county the income it "desperately needs."
Cordish partner Joseph Weinberg has enlisted supporters, including labor unions and chambers of commerce.
"It would be illogical for a political body, elected to represent the people, to place its personal biases above the vote of the people," Weinberg said.
Anti-slots groups, which say that gambling would bring more traffic and crime to neighborhoods near the mall, also have ramped up their activities and vow to sue if they lose. On Saturday, members of Stop Slots at Arundel Mills held a rally near the mall. Rob Annicelli, the group's president, said he believes such efforts are having a significant impact.
"If it weren't for fear of retribution at election time, I can't see why the council would be waiting," Annicelli said.
The divided council has postponed a vote several times and as recently as last week had discussed another possible delay.
In October, Vitale, a Republican, and Councilman Daryl Jones, a Democrat, unveiled a bill that would allow slots south of Route 32, away from the mall. That area includes Laurel Park.
The Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Laurel Park, as well as representatives of the horse racing industry have lobbied against zoning for the Cordish project. Though a portion of any slots revenue would go toward boosting racing purses, they contend that the Laurel track needs slots to survive and plan to have a contingent of several hundred who support that point of view at Monday's meeting.
"If gambling at [Arundel] Mills is passed, the Maryland thoroughbred industry and specifically Laurel Park are in great jeopardy," said Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club.
Both Jones and Vitale probably would have to support zoning for the Cordish project if the council is to pass it. That's because Benoit opposes it and two other members are not voting.
Councilman Josh J. Cohen is to be sworn in Monday as Annapolis mayor and will be off the council. And Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks announced last week that he would recuse himself from the vote, saying his business dealings create the appearance of a possible conflict of interest. He declined to elaborate.
Jones is in a precarious position. His district includes the mall, and while he has worked to gain protections for nearby residents as part of the slots zoning process, he has been hearing for months from angry constituents threatening to oppose his re-election if he votes to approve the project at Arundel Mills. He also could lose support from state Democratic lawmakers who pushed the slots plan through the General Assembly.
Councilman Ronald C. Dillon and County Executive John R. Leopold, both Republicans and slots proponents, said they believe the council will approve zoning for a slots casino at the mall site, noting the county's fiscal problems and the need for revenue to build schools and avoid layoffs of county employees.
"There's more twists and turns in this issue than a Bronx cab ride," said Leopold. "I remain cautiously optimistic that at some point the council will coalesce."