Roughly 91 percent of Maryland residents don't live in Anne Arundel County. Most probably, they couldn't name a single member of the Anne Arundel County Council (a trait they likely share with a great many county residents), but fate and politics have thrust the matter of slot machine gambling and the financial future of Maryland public schools into the council's hands.
Monday's decision by the state slots commission to award the license for a 4,750-machine slots parlor at Arundel Mills Mall was not particularly surprising. The plan submitted by Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. passed all the commission's financial, marketing and other business-related tests with flying colors.
Indeed, the only dissenting votes on the commission were from two members who felt the Anne Arundel County Council ought to act on the necessary zoning approval first. They were probably correct - but with the council unwilling or unable to act first, the commission had little choice.
Why Arundel Mills? Because if Maryland is to move forward with slots under the law voters overwhelmingly endorsed last fall, the Anne Arundel County site is not only crucial, it's pretty much the whole ball of wax.
As the analysis performed by the state's independent consultants noted, Arundel Mills could well become one of the most lucrative slots facilities in the country. The mall already attracts 14 million visitors per year, making it a more popular destination than Ocean City. It is bound to attract more customers (and become more of a destination for out-of-state residents) than all the rest of the slots locations in the state put together.
That adds up to about $335 million in annual revenue for the state to spend on education, nearly $30 million for Anne Arundel County and millions of dollars to upgrade Maryland horse tracks and boost purses, a critical lifeline for those who make their living in racing. The potential at Arundel Mills is so great that it would almost certainly generate more direct support for Maryland's horse industry than would a casino at Laurel Park.
That the county council members have so far failed to take action on zoning does not speak well of them. After nearly one year to consider the pros (revenue and jobs) and cons (unhappy neighbors and racetrack owners), it's downright bizarre that some members of the council have yet to even voice a position.
Make no mistake, the council was correct to postpone the vote this week - three of seven members were not going to be able to cast a ballot, and that's too large a chunk of the county to leave unrepresented. But with a vacancy set to be filled in eight days, the council ought to render its judgment in two weeks.
More than tax revenue is at stake. Many in Maryland had misgivings about legalizing slot machines in the first place. As a result, lawmakers approved a fair, independent and public procurement process to select the winning bidders.
Now there's a danger that all of this careful deliberation will be circumvented by backroom dealing and political influence from the likes of Peter Angelos, Joseph A. DeFrancis and others who might benefit if Arundel Mills is rejected and slots end up at Laurel Park. It's all a little too reminiscent of Marlboro Race Track and the political manipulations that put then-Gov. Marvin Mandel in federal prison three decades ago.
Developer David S. Cordish followed the rules and put down his money (unlike a certain bankrupt Canadian firm). He has succeeded with similar projects elsewhere, and his proposal at Arundel Mills promises to be a major economic development boon for the county and the state. The choice seems obvious: The sooner the project is approved, the better for all 5.6 million residents of this state.
The Arundel Mills Mall is already overcrowded, and now they want to add a casino? I suspect very few of the people who are pushing this idea actually live in the vicinity of Arundel Mills Mall, and if they travel there, they probably have reserved parking and chauffeurs.
This plan is not well thought out at all: dumping a gambling facility onto an already overcrowded major shopping center, and close to a Community College center? Hopefully, the council kills it at Arundel Mills and gives the developer the opportunity to place the casino at Laurel Park - where the voters expected it to be all along.
If AA County doesn't want slots, that's their decision. They need to stop screwing around and vote. Their foot dragging will cost the Maryland taxpayers tens of millions in lost revenue. They've had their chance. Put slots where the $50 million in local county revenue will be appreciated. Forget AA County - they deserve what they get.