Slots in W. Md. could be area's ruin – or salvation

At the verdant Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort outside Cumberland, a retired nurse from Pennsylvania strolls the banks of man-made Lake Habeeb, relishing a vacation of spa treatments and boutique shopping while her husband plays the Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course.

Eleven miles away, just across the West Virginia border, a part-time factory worker and a retiree cheerfully drain money into a bank of five slot machines lining a cramped, windowless room near the regional airport, along with three other Cumberland women.

"This is just pure fun and enjoyment," says Pat Phillips, 67, the retiree, maintaining her gaze on the flashing screen. "But I'd sooner spend my money in Maryland."

If state voters authorize slot machine gambling in November, these discordant tableaux of leisure will meld in Western Maryland, with the likely establishment of a 1,500-machine slots parlor at the Rocky Gap State Park, near the resort. The result will either be this economically distressed region's salvation or ruin, depending on whom you ask.

Proponents say slots will bring more tourists to a struggling state-owned and developed resort in Allegany County, which is two hours from Baltimore, Washington and Pittsburgh.

A decade after opening, the project has struggled with annual operating losses and has missed payments to private bondholders. Slots supporters also say an influx of gambling dollars will spill over into nearby Cumberland and finally make Western Maryland the robust vacation destination its boosters believe it can be.

Opponents say a relatively poor region with an aging population and high unemployment is particularly vulnerable to the supposed social costs of gambling - addiction, divorce, crime, suicide - and that Allegany County will end up losing money on the deal, even if the state budget reaps a windfall.

Perhaps tellingly, the local chamber of commerce has declined to take a public stand on the position, citing a lack of available data on economic impacts. "There have been studies done in the past, but they don't necessarily apply to today," said Barbara G. Buehl, the business organization's president.

The dearth of reliable analysis on the economic impact of slots at Rocky Gap feeds contradictory claims about the likely effects.

"It's a no-brainer," said Robert C. Brennan, executive director of the Maryland Economic Development Corp., which built the Rocky Gap resort in the mid-1990s with about $26 million in public money and millions more in private investment. "We would expect significant increase in occupancy and traffic to the Western region."

Matthew W. Diaz, director of the Allegany County Department of Economic Development, said slots-related tourism would energize retail business in downtown Cumberland, where a front-page story in a newspaper last week was the impending closure of a Valu City discount department store, the business district's largest retailer.

But William R. Valentine, who runs a 60-year-old plumbing business in the region, predicts a different outcome if slots come to Rocky Gap. "I think it's going to be financially devastating to Allegany County," he said, noting that unlike other proposed slots jurisdictions, a Rocky Gap casino would not generate local property tax collections because of its location on state parkland.

According to a fiscal analysis by the Maryland Department of Legislative Services, gamblers will leave about $60 million annually by 2013 in 1,500 slot machines at Rocky Gap. If only a quarter of that money is spent by local gamblers, that's $15 million that might otherwise flow into the regional economy, Valentine figures.

Moreover, the demographics of Allegany County increase the dangers of pathological gambling, he said.

"The people most likely to become addicted to slot machines are people 55 years of age or greater with a lower income and that fits Allegany County perfectly," said Valentine, a long-time slots opponent in the region.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in the county is under $34,000 a year - about $23,000 less than the statewide figure. And roughly 18 percent of the county population is over 65, compared with less than 12 percent of all Marylanders.

Whatever the actual economic consequences of a slots parlor at Rocky Gap, it would almost certainly bring more local residents to a resort that many say is too posh for them to regularly enjoy.

On the wall of the golf course's bar and grill reads a sign: "This resort was made possible through the efforts of the residents of Maryland and Allegany Co." But the Cumberland residents who play slots at the West Virginia airport say the $160-a-night hotel and $40 to $125 greens fees their tax dollars financed is out of their reach.

"Rocky Gap is too expensive for people in this city," Peggy Whitaker, 66, said while feeding a slot machine at the West Virginia airport. Whitaker, who works as a cutter at the Biederlack blanket factory in Cumberland, says she crosses the border to gamble two or three times a week.

If slots came to Rocky Gap, Whitaker said, she and her friends would gamble there, though the appeal would be a sea of new machines, not the scenery. "A person that likes to go gamble ain't worried about the lake," she said, moments before hitting a $250 jackpot.

Over at Rocky Gap, some of the resort's tourists said an influx of slots players would detract from the vacation spot's appeal. "I would never dream of coming to a place like that," said Peter Hensel, 78, of West Chester, Pa., who says he and his wife regularly stay over at the hotel when traveling to visit family in Morgantown, W.Va.

Cumberland Mayor Lee N. Fiedler, who favors slots at Rocky Gap, acknowledges that a casino will turn some visitors away.

"It's going to be very key for Rocky Gap that the casino is not part of the main building," Fiedler said. "I do believe you'll get a different type of person if you're not careful."

But Fiedler rejected the argument that a nearby slots parlor will draw more of his constituents into reckless gambling. Those who like to play the slots already do at nearby casinos in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware, he said.

"We're getting the social problems anyway," Fiedler said, "if you believe there are social problems [from gambling], and I don't really believe you have them."

Not all visitors to the Rocky Gap resort thought slots would detract from their enjoyment of the place. Marsha Hinkle, the retired nurse from Gettysburg, said she "would hate to see the beauty of the place marred," but that if slots were tastefully incorporated into the landscape, she would still vacation here."I truly, truly do not see a problem with them," said Hinkle, 68, "If that's what it takes to keep a place like this in business, I'm all for it."


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