Maryland’s history with gambling is long but uncertain. Not only have Marylanders bet on horse races legally (and sometimes not) for at least a century and a half, but slot machines were commonplace in Anne Arundel County and Southern Maryland from the 1940s until they were banned in the 1960s over concerns about crime and addiction. What are today known as video lottery terminals returned in 2007 when the Maryland General Assembly approved a charter amendment — and voters subsequently agreed — for thousands of them, but only under strict conditions including supervision by a state agency and with gaming limited to five, and later six, strategically-located casino locations with poker, blackjack and other table games thrown in. Add sports betting, approved by voters in 2020 and available at most casinos since December (with mobile betting expected soon enough), and Maryland’s love-hate relationship with wagering is definitely leaning more toward the love side in 2022.
Yet when is enough, enough? Some lawmakers appear to want to test the limit with a proposal to install slot machines at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. There are any number of reasons why this is a terrible idea. But surely a leading one is that it’s bad for the region’s identity. Two major U.S. cities currently offer slot machines at their airports: Las Vegas and Reno. The fit for them is perfect. They are gambling meccas in the sand. Baltimore is known for its waterfront and the Chesapeake Bay, or perhaps for steamed blue crabs, or its medical facilities and life science industry or — we hope, soon — for the central role the Space Telescope Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University has played in the development of the James Webb Space Telescope. But gambling? On that, we ought to take a hard pass. Not because the casinos are unwelcome. Quite the contrary. They are important tourism attractions, job creators and revenue sources that help pay for schools. But this is not our brand.
The irony, of course, is that it’s venues like Baltimore’s Horseshoe Casino that ought to be offering BWI-related services (like ticketing or TSA Precheck applications, perhaps) and not vice versa. The airport provides a $4.4 billion economic impact on Maryland, not counting the $4.9 billion boost provided by visitors who travel through its gates, according to a 2017 study. The casinos? Closer to $1.7 billion and thousands fewer jobs. Again, that’s not to belittle gambling, but air travel is where the big money is — even in pandemic times.
Under legislation offered by Republican Dels. Ric Metzgar (Baltimore County) and Susan W. Krebs (Carroll County), BWI would essentially became a seventh slots location with potentially as many as 3,000 of the one-armed bandits available to travelers within the security perimeter. They would surely make money, of course. Legislative analysts estimated the state would net about $15 million annually when a similar bill was offered (and failed) in 2009. And no doubt slots-lovers would cheer to have a place to sit and insert 20s to their heart’s delight while the rest of us are annoyed by all those blaring sound effects and flashing lights. Is the not-so-subtle message of their raucous presence, “Welcome to Maryland: We accommodate your addiction,” or is it “Thanks for visiting Maryland: Leave some more cash behind, please?”
Here’s a better idea: Instead of nickel-and-diming tourists, why not place the real bet on BWI itself? Upgrade the airport and you can make visitors from CEOs to regular folk want to live here. The Hogan administration gets that. This year, the Maryland Aviation Administration is launching work on a new Concourse A/B connector and baggage handling project ($425 million) to accommodate Southwest Airlines traffic, a new $135 million maintenance facility also for Southwest (the carrier’s first in the Mid-Atlantic) and a $55 million restroom makeover for Concourses B, C and D. Meanwhile, two international airlines — low-cost PLAY and Icelandair, both from Reykjavík, are expected to begin service in April and May, respectively.
Those are among the promising signs that BWI has already returned to its well-established pattern of steady growth. Pandemic or no, a record 611 million pounds of cargo passed through BWI in Fiscal Year 2021, a 12% increase from the previous year. With all due respect to slots, that makes the airport the better wager and Maryland residents ultimately the biggest winners of all.
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