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Community, state fair reach deal on off-track betting at fairgrounds

The Maryland State Fair and Greater Timonium Community Council reached an agreement Friday that ends months of debate over gambling at the state fairgrounds.

The fair has promised not to seek casino gambling, and in exchange, community leaders have pledged not to oppose an off-track betting facility.

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William C. Marlow, an attorney and board member for the Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society, said fair officials were relieved.

"We've had input from everybody," he said. "You can't make everyone completely happy. Sometimes that's the sign of a good compromise."

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Eric Rockel, president of the Greater Timonium Community Council, said the parties reached a "reasonable and realistic compromise." He's been working with community leaders and elected officials on the issue for months.

Rockel and others in Timonium were taken by surprise in January when they learned that the Maryland Jockey Club planned to open a year-round simulcast facility with off-track betting at the fairgrounds. Currently, off-track betting takes place only during the summer horse racing meet that coincides with the Maryland State Fair.

"The people of Timonium value and appreciate the fairgrounds, and we hope it will remain the family-friendly entertainment venue in the future," Rockel said. "We certainly didn't want to penalize that part of the fairgrounds in the stance that we took. We were concerned that the satellite simulcast would mean a whole different flavor for the fairgrounds."

As neighbors campaigned against the off-track betting parlor, the Baltimore County Council and the General Assembly considered bills to put a stop to the off-track betting facility.

Del. Chris West, a Baltimore County Republican who helped broker the agreement between the fair and the community, said a bill he and other state lawmakers sponsored will be withdrawn.

"I believe this is a win-win-win-win situation for all affected parties," West said in a statement. "The residents of Timonium can breathe easily that they will never have to fight another battle to prevent slots or a casino from being introduced in Timonium."

The Maryland Jockey Club won approval from state regulators to open the off-track betting parlor, which was open for limited use during a testing phase, Marlow said. The parlor can fully open once final approvals are signed by county inspectors, he said.

The off-track betting is expected to bring an infusion of cash that will be split among the jockey club, the fair and horsemen. The take could be as high as $500,000 per year, which would be put into maintaining the fair's aging buildings, Marlow said.

Jockey club officials have said Timonium is a convenient location for its existing bettors and also will allow the racing industry to expand its customer base. The off-track betting parlor is expected to draw about 100 to 150 people per day.

Nearby residents were worried that the off-track betting parlor would be a first step toward even more gambling at the fairgrounds. They also were frustrated at the lack of notice about the plans.

"I hope this will in the future make everybody want to be more open and transparent with their communications," Rockel said.

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