Measure to ban slots in Pr. George’s moves forward in County Council

October 11, 2011

A bill that would ban slots in Prince George’s survived a key vote Tuesday when a County Council committee approved the measure — a gaming proposal that has renewed a long-standing dispute over what types of businesses the county should attract.

Jonathan Weaver, a minister who is leading efforts in the faith community to oppose slots, said the gambling machines would be harmful to the county’s quality of life.

“Why should we have them dumped on the residents of Prince George’s County?” he asked at a news conference before the committee vote. He said the county government should be seeking more upscale businesses that provide higher paying jobs.

The 3 to 0 vote on the bill, which was proposed by council member Eric Olson (D-College Park), came on the same day that County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) stood in an empty warehouse near Andrews Air Force Base and announced that a Virginia security firm had decided to relocate to southern Prince George’s.

Coastal International Security has promised to bring more than a dozen new jobs, as well as 40 to 50 existing positions, and is considering expanding. Retrofitting the warehouse will require more than 100 construction workers, company officials said.

“We stole and we are willing to admit that we stole a business from Virginia,” said Baker, who has made economic development a cornerstone of his nearly year-old administration. Coastal has contracts with federal agencies to provide security, and the company will relocate its headquarters and training facilities to the Upper Marlboro site.

Baker used the occasion to say that he hopes to make Prince George’s a place where the security industry would expand and feel welcomed.

But he has made no such statements about slots, which Penn National Gaming wants to bring to recently reopened Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington.

While he opposed slots as a member of the General Assembly, Baker would like the council to tamp down its opposition — at least for now. He said he needs negotiating room with state leaders on a host of county priorities, including the millions of dollars it needs in state aid for schools, and a new hospital.

“We have to have a relationship with Annapolis,” said Baker, who is being pressured by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) to find new revenue sources to fund the new hospital and other county needs. Miller is a backer of Penn National Gaming’s proposal to put slots at Rosecroft; Busch is not a slots supporter.

While the politically powerful faith community in the county is firmly against slots, Baker is also weighing his need for support from Miller and Busch, who can make or break his priorities in Annapolis. He also wants to attract upscale business with high-paying jobs. The county often has been a second or third choice for businesses in the region.

Local entrepreneur G Wheeler Jr., who lives at National Harbor, urged the county at the ministers’ news conference to find other revenue sources.

“This is like environmental racism,” he said of efforts to bring in slots to an area that he described as a place where “people are undervalued, underestimated and marginalized. . . . They are not trying to bring slots to Fairfax County. They are not going to try to bring slots to Montgomery County.”

Undaunted by the critics, Penn National Gaming released a poll Tuesday that its lobbyist Gerry Evans said shows extensive community support for allowing residents, rather than the County Council, to decide whether the county should get slots. In 2008, five sites in Maryland, but none in Prince George’s, were approved by voters for slots. The closest site to Prince George’s is in neighboring Anne Arundel County.

The full council is to take up Olson’s anti-slots bill in the next few weeks.

Four members — Olson, William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville), Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale) and Mary A. Lehman (D-Laurel) — have said they are backing the bill. Council Chairman Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie) and council members Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro), Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington) and Karen Toles (D-Suitland) have not taken a position. Patterson and Toles abstained at Tuesday’s committee vote.

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