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Maryland Politics
Posted at 09:16 PM ET, 02/16/2012

Casino plan for Natl. Harbor in Prince George’s prompts concerns

A plan to build a massive casino at National Harbor is stirring up a lot of rhetoric among Prince George’s County leaders.

“I am very disappointed in our county executive,” said Jonathan Weaver, pastor of Greater Mt. Nebo AME Church in Bowie, as he learned the details of County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D)’s proposal, which would have casino developers investing $1 billion in a National Harbor gaming venue.

“I can’t put it any other way than that.”

“Who is he listening to? The citizens of Prince George’s County or other people who don’t live in this county who are trying to profit off the backs of people who live here?

“People are absolutely furious,” Weaver said.

Among members of the Prince George’s County Council, which includes at least four opponents of gaming, Vice Chairman Eric Olson (D-College Park) said the council “does not have a position yet.”

“Personally, I’m opposed” said Olson, who led an unsuccessful effort last year to ban gaming in Prince George’s. But other council members, including Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington), whose district is a likely site for gaming, have taken a wait-and-see attitude. Patterson, who did not respond to a request for comment Thursday, had said previously that he wanted to be sure that if there were gambling in Prince George’s, the county was able to reap the financial benefits through a formula that would help bring more revenue directly to the county treasury.

While many public officials still are digesting Baker’s proposal — he began briefing them in detail Thursday morning — there seems to be agreement on one key point: Even opponents of gaming, such as Del. Doyle Niemann (D-Prince George’s), say that if the county ultimately is selected as a site for gaming, putting a casino at National Harbor, the upscale resort destination on the Potomac, is probably the right move.

“If there were to be gambling, his proposal is the only one that makes any sense whatsoever. To put it at National Harbor, which is mostly a destination for folks outside the area, to make it a Las Vegas operation, if we were to do it, that is the only way to do it. I still think it is bad social and economic policy and there is a question about whether it is going anywhere” said Niemann, who is a county prosecutor.

Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George’s) who has told Baker she is worried about the potential damage to the county’s image from making it a gambling mecca, said if she has to choose, an upscale casino development is preferable.

“I see more benefits to table games than slots, even though they both come with problems. We already have the lottery so it is not as if we don’t have gambling.”

But she would prefer to see something other than gambling to help fill the county treasury.

“Should we make that our hallmark in Prince George’s County? I don’t think it is a great idea. When people think of Prince George’s County, I don’t want the first thing they think of to be ‘that’s where we can play slots and gamble.’ ”

“If we are going to do that, National Harbor is clearly the place to do it. But I would rather not do it at all.It doesn’t solve our problems and it will definitely create some.”

Legislation pending in the General Assembly calls for bids for a Prince George’s casino from locations in a western swath of the county that includes both National Harbor and the recently reopened Rosecroft Raceway.

Penn National Gaming, the new owner of Rosecroft, has made a concerted push since the summer to build support in the legislature for gaming at the once-storied horse-racing track in Fort Washington.

Baker made clear that his administration strongly prefers National Harbor. The 300-acre, $2 billion development, which opened in 2008, features retail, restaurants and hotel and conference accommodations.

William H. Cavitt, president of the Indian Head Highway Area Action Council, which is comprised of 35 local civic and neighborhood associations, said his group would fight the proposal “tooth and nail.”

Cavitt, who lives a few minutes by car from National Harbor, said the organization remains strongly opposed to bringing any form of gambling to Prince George’s. He said that he had been advised years ago by a real estate lawyer to put his house on the market “the moment gambling comes to Prince George’s. Because after that, values will decline.”

The county, which by law must balance its budget this spring, is running a $122 million deficit right now in it $2.7 billion spending plan, and projections aren’t rosy for the next few years either.

Del. Melony Griffith (D-Prince George’s), who chairs the county’s House delegation in Annapolis, said she was sympathetic to the need to try to raise more revenue to pay for schools, public safety, and other government functions.

“If I had to vote today, my answer would be no. I am not convinced that the juice is worth the squeeze. We have seen enough data that tells of us negatives that comes along with any positives. The ones that have been implemented have generated less revenue than they were based on. . .

“We told the state in 2007 that Prince George’s did not want slots and I am not sure what has changed,” Griffith said, referring to the referendum that brought gaming to Maryland.

The preference for National Harbor was one of several conditions Baker spelled out for his support of gambling legislation pending in the General Assembly. A hearing on the Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Prince George's) is scheduled for Wednesday.

Peters said he looked forward to continuing discussions with Baker and his colleagues about changes to the bill but expressed concern about steering the project to National Harbor without taking bids for other locations.”From a business standpoint, I’m concerned if there isn’t competition so the best deal can be made for Prince George’s County.”

Former Del. Gerron Levi (D-Prince George’s), said Baker’s plan doesn’t mitigate the likelihood that it ultimately will be up to voters across the state — not just in Prince George’s — to decide if the county is a gaming site.. .

“Baker will not get to decide. By raising this, he has ceded this issue to the state and the 23 other jurisdictions in the state. They will decide for Prince George’s County,” said Levi, who is leading an anti-gaming effort in the county. .

“It is bad public policy for our county to have gambling at all, not only for Prince George’s County but for the entire Washington region, which will be affected by it,” she said.

Whether lawmakers are in tune with their constituents is not yet clear.

A Washington Post poll last month found a generally receptive audience in Prince George’s. In the polls, 57 percent of county residents said they would support a slots casino at a location such as Rosecroft Raceway or National Harbor; 41 percent said they were opposed. Similar support was voiced by residents statewide.

After a series of setbacks, two of Maryland’s five authorized casinos are open: a 1,000-machine standalone slots facility in Perryville, in the northeastern corner of the state, and an 800-machine venue at Ocean Downs racetrack on the Eastern Shore.

The state also is weighing a bid for a site in Western Maryland, where up to 1,000 slots machines would be allowed.

By  |  09:16 PM ET, 02/16/2012

 
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