Poll shows tight battle for Arundel Mills slots

Voters in Anne Arundel County are nearly evenly split on a ballot referendum that will decide the fate of a planned billion-dollar slots casino and entertainment complex at Arundel Mills mall, according to a new Baltimore Sun poll.

Forty-seven percent of likely county voters said they would support Question A, the ballot question that would allow zoning needed to build a slots parlor at Arundel Mills, and 45 percent said they are opposed. Because the survey has a margin of error of 5 percentage points, the results represent a statistical tie.

"It's a toss-up," said pollster Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, the polling company retained by The Sun.

Eight percent of those polled said they were undecided — a group that in coming days will be the target of a huge advertising campaign that pits two deep-pocketed groups against each other.

Baltimore-based Cordish Cos., which has a license to build the slots parlor at the mall, is lobbying heavily for the zoning measure, while the Maryland Jockey Club and related interests are fighting against it, hoping to steer the project to the Laurel Park race course.

The ballot question addresses only the zoning issue, and its rejection would not mean that the slots project automatically goes to the racetrack. Still, many county voters said they prefer the gambling project to be built at a horse racing facility.

When asked their views on the most appropriate venue for slots, regardless of their position on Question A, nearly four in 10 voters said a racetrack would be the best location.

Twenty-seven percent of respondents said the mall, and 10 percent said either they didn't care or said either location is acceptable. Eighteen percent said they didn't want slots at all, and 7 percent said they were unsure.

Some undecided Arundel residents said in interviews they had been paying attention to the bombardment of television ads, but have not been swayed yet.

Romona Curry, a 56-year-old retired federal worker from Glen Burnie, said she's undecided but "leaning closer" to supporting Question A.

"At first the ads that went out talked about that the slots would be inside the mall, that was the indication, and I didn't want that," said Curry, who doesn't gamble. "But when they started talking about it would be in a separate building … and they're not mingling with the mall people, then I'm more for it."

Charles Johnson, a computer programmer, said he's in favor of slots in the state, but is torn over the location. He plans to "read up on the issue" in the coming days before deciding how he'll vote.

"That was the purpose of the original bill, to save the [horse racing] industry," said Johnson, 63, a Gambrills resident. "And I think we should stay with that. However, I'm in favor of us raising revenues with slots. I believe that the tracks are the best place. But what I can't figure out is, if we don't put them at Arundel Mills, does that mean us not having them at all, and the revenues would continue to stream out of the state?"

Support for the referendum varies within the county. In County Council District 4, which includes the Laurel Park track, voters favor the zoning plan to allow slots at the mall by a small margin. But in the council district that includes the mall, District 1, more than half of the voters say they reject the zoning bill.

County Council members have long been divided over the slots plan, and approved the zoning bill in a split vote after nearly a year of rancorous debate. Horse racing interests immediately launched a petition drive to overturn the bill, leading to the referendum.

The ballot question campaign has become one of the most heated of the election season. The vote will determine if Cordish Cos. can build a planned 4,750-machine slots parlor adjacent to Arundel Mills, which could be the state's most lucrative casino in a gambling program that has lagged since voters approved it in a 2008 statewide vote.

Just one of five approved casinos — in Cecil County — has opened, a disappointment to those who anticipated a flow of revenue for state and local jurisdictions. In addition to Anne Arundel's, Baltimore's casino is also on hold.

With neighboring states that allow slots already responding to competition by approving table games, some politicians in Maryland are discussing expanded gambling options here.

The Sun Poll showed that voters were almost evenly split on bringing blackjack, roulette and craps to the state's slots facilities. Forty-three percent said they oppose it, while 42 percent said they were in favor of it. Fourteen percent said they were unsure.

With about a week until the Nov. 2 election, advocates on both sides are ramping up efforts in a campaign that has cost nearly $6 million to date. David Cordish, chairman of Cordish Cos., has increased his public profile, going door-to-door to make his case to voters, announcing potential restaurants at the casino and touting support from the business community.

The opposition, led by a group called No Slots at the Mall, has run a barrage of television advertising casting the mall as an inappropriate venue for gambling, and has aggressively fought back against criticisms of their tactics launched by Cordish.

The Maryland Jockey Club, which has financed the opposition group with hopes of bringing slots to Laurel Park, has said one of its facilities would close if the zoning measure passes — either Laurel, Pimlico or its training facility in Prince George's County. Penn National Gaming, which co-owns Laurel Park and holds the license for the Cecil County casino in Perryville, said recently that it would be willing to sell the Perryville property in order to develop slots at Laurel. State law does not allow a company to hold more than one license.

The fight has entered the governor's race, with Cordish recently blasting Gov. Martin O'Malley for not supporting the casino. O'Malley, a Democrat who is seeking re-election, has said racetracks are a more appropriate venue for slots. Republican challenger Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who lives in Anne Arundel County, has said he will vote for Question A.

The poll results show little difference between O'Malley and Ehrlich supporters on the referendum. Among voters who said they backed O'Malley, 49 percent said they favored Question A, with 43 percent opposed. By comparison, 48 percent of Ehrlich supporters said they were voting for the zoning bill, with 50 percent opposed.

Two years ago, about six in 10 Anne Arundel voters approved the statewide slots referendum, with many thinking slots were destined for Laurel Park. But the then-owners of the Jockey Club couldn't come up with the upfront financing, and many were surprised when Cordish was granted the license and proposed to build a slots parlor at the mall, situated halfway between Baltimore and Washington.

Carolyn Matthews, a retired federal worker who lives in Annapolis, said she is voting against Question A and doesn't like how the slots plan has evolved.

"It was supposed to save the race courses; that was my understanding," said Matthews, 65. "I think it should be at a racetrack."

Warren Buffington, a 53-year-old from Severn who said he lives "five minutes from the mall," said while he would welcome the added revenue from slots, he's concerned about adding more traffic to the busy roads near Arundel Mills. Still undecided, Buffington said he would be willing to throw his support to Question A if he had assurances that roads and intersections would be upgraded to accommodate increased traffic.

"My taxes are low now and I'd like to continue that way," said Buffington. "Hopefully the casino would prevent my taxes from going up too much."

An overwhelming majority of respondents indicated they feel knowledgeable about the issue, with 87 percent saying they understand Question A, while 10 percent said they "find it confusing" and 3 percent saying they weren't sure.

James Copper, a 50-year-old from Pasadena, said the onslaught of commercials from both sides has been more confusing.

"One says the casino's in the mall, the other says it's a separate building, so I don't know what to believe," said Copper. "It's more confusing than anything. I'd like to know what the truth is on that. Somebody's lying."

Copper, who said he doesn't gamble, remains undecided but is leaning toward voting against the zoning bill because of fears that the traffic around the mall would get worse. "It won't kill me if it goes there, but I'd just rather not have it at the mall. If you go over there on a Friday night, or during the holidays, it's gridlock."

The track, he said, is a better location.


Sun poll methodology

The Baltimore Sun telephone survey of 798 likely voters was conducted Oct. 15-20. The Sun's pollster, OpinionWorks of Annapolis, used a Maryland Board of Elections database to identify registered voters with a history of voting in gubernatorial elections or who had registered to vote since the last election, and obtained survey results from those who ranked themselves seven or higher on 1-to-10 scale of their likelihood to vote. The Sun's sample was designed to approximate the racial, gender, geographic, partisan and age breakdown of the state's voting population as a whole, based on turnout patterns averaged over the last four Maryland general elections. Results were weighted to reflect a higher-than-average Republican turnout this year, and slightly lower African-American participation than in recent elections. The margin of error for questions that reflect the entire sample is 3.5 percentage points, which means that in 95 times out of 100, the actual answer obtained by surveying every Maryland voter would be within 3.5 percentage points of the answer obtained by using the sample. For questions about Anne Arundel voters and slots, the sample size was 422 voters, with an error rate of 4.8 percentage points.