Laurel is putting up little fight over slots

When the Washington Redskins tried to build a football stadium in Laurel in the early 1990s, nearby residents pummeled them worse than the Raiders did in Super Bowl XVIII.

When NASCAR wanted to build a race facility in 1998, residents ran the plan off the track.

But as Maryland lawmakers debate a divisive proposal that would allow 3,500 slot machines each at three horse tracks, including Laurel Park, many residents of this community southwest of Baltimore seem to be shrugging their shoulders.

There are no anti-slot T-shirts, like there were for the stadium. The first community meeting on slots this month drew about 150 people; a meeting on the stock car track proposal drew more than 1,000.

"It's not like something brand-new is coming," said former Laurel Mayor Joseph Robison. "I don't think they see it as a major inconvenience to them personally, so they don't really care."

Community leaders say reaction to the slots proposal is different for several reasons:

The horse track is already in Laurel. It would be bigger, but not new. The traffic wouldn't all come and go at the same time, so there would never be as much at once.

And unlike the proposed stadium, which residents had complained would be crammed onto a small piece of property, the horse track is buffered from the community by trees, a train track and major roads.

"We know what the [horse] track is," said Ray Smallwood, longtime president of the Maryland City Civic Association, which represents nearby residents. "When we moved here the track was here. The track is part of our family. We're accustomed to it."

Both sides agree that, to some extent, slots could help rejuvenate the track, which was once home to the Maryland Million and international racing events.

"I think people are more concerned what's going to happen to the track if something doesn't occur," said Del. Brian R. Moe, the mayor's brother and a Laurel resident.

Bedroom community

The track was opened as a fairground in 1911, and racing started there shortly thereafter, said Elizabeth Compton, co-founder of the Laurel Museum.

At that time, Laurel was a factory town. Until 1875, it was known as Laurel Factory. There was a grist mill and another one that produced a cotton product similar to canvas.

Washingtonians and Baltimoreans owned Victorian summer homes there. Today, the people in and around Laurel drive to the two cities each day.

The area has become a bedroom community, said Leo Emery, who has owned Laurel Art Center on Main Street for 31 years.

"It's a mentality," he said. "It's just the way of life here."

In that way - and others - Laurel differs from the other track areas that may get slots, Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County.

Race emerged as an issue in the slots debate when the plan's staunchest opponent, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, asked why Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan would put slots in lower-income black neighborhoods. Laurel Park, however, isn't surrounded by predominantly black neighborhoods. And the city of Laurel's per capita income of $26,717 is higher than the state standard of $25,614, according to the 2000 census.

The Laurel area also has a distinctively suburban feel. The city has a population of 20,000, but more than 160,000 people have a Laurel ZIP code. Even the city's mayor commutes to a job in Annapolis.

"You probably have more NIMBYs in these types of communities than you have anywhere else," said Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club. The club is a subsidiary of the Canadian group that owns the tracks.

Traffic complaints

If there's anything the so-called "not-in-my-backyard" types have complained about, it's traffic headaches slots players could cause. After all, that's what the commuting residents deal with every day - traffic.

At the community forum, where residents offered differing - and often half-hearted - opinions, big roadway backups were an oft-repeated theme.

The jockey club said it did not yet have study results on how slots would impact traffic.

"If any of you lived in the area," Christopher Keene of nearby Russett told backers, "you wouldn't need a study. ... You'd be stuck in traffic."

Each day, an average of 41,475 vehicles travel Route 198 near the track, and 32,475 take U.S. 1, state highway officials said. Jockey club officials said slot machines are expected to draw about 10,000 people a day, though many would travel in groups or by bus. By comparison, Redskins games can draw more than 75,000.

"The initial thinking," State Highway Administration spokeswoman Valerie Burnette Edgar said, "is it wouldn't be a tremendous traffic impact."

At Pimlico and Rosecroft, additional traffic could be expected to pulse through nearby neighborhoods. That's not the case at Laurel, locals said.

On nearly every side, woods buffer the outside world from the track. The approximately 400-acre facility, which is more than twice the size of Pimlico, is mostly surrounded by businesses on major roads.

Midway Mobile Village, the mobile home community that abuts the track's north parking lot, accounts for just about all of its residential neighbors. From across broken pavement, they see the Maryland, United States and racetrack flags waving on the grandstand's backside.

Residents Karen Kenney, 51, and Mark McKinney, 43, said the railroad trains that pass nearby are louder than the racetrack ever would be.

Doris Campbell, 79, has lived there in a double-wide trailer with blue shutters for 36 years. Her back yard touches the parking lot.

"They don't bother me," Campbell said. "The only time you can hear that guy hollering the races is if the wind blows this way. They can put in slots."

Aid at issue

The three delegates who represent Laurel have co-sponsored a bill that would impose a one-year moratorium on slots so that the impact could be further scrutinized.

Among the issues is local aid that the area would receive from slots revenue. It would be divided among the jurisdictions that converge at the track: the city of Laurel, in Prince George's County; Anne Arundel County, where the track is located; and Howard County, which has a portion of the parking areas.

The jurisdictions haven't completed their cost estimates to determine if about $18 million, the most recent figure in a Senate slots bill, will be enough. The money would go toward more public safety workers and road improvements.

One Laurel legislator, Democrat Del. Pauline H. Menes, suggested another reason why local residents might be flocking to the middle ground on slots: They don't know what to think.

"There are a lot of uncertainties," she said. "An awful lot of uncertainties."

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