Prince George’s council poised to vote on zoning bill that could ban slots

Rick Tyler, who has lived near the Rosecroft Raceway for more than 20 years, says a plan to bring slot machine gambling to the track will cost Prince George’s County more than it will gain.

Steeped in the minutiae of traffic flow, Tyler estimates that slots could bring 30,000 cars a day to the residential communities near the track, an onslaught that could overwhelm streets, clog a nearby Capital Beltway exit and add to gridlock on crowded commuter routes such as Indian Head Highway.

“People are 50-50 on slots,” Tyler said. “You have to talk about traffic.”

On Tuesday, the Prince George’s County Council is scheduled to vote on a zoning bill that could effectively ban slots. The bill has stirred up debate over traffic, community impact, morals and the county’s need to raise money. As Prince George’s leaders try to redefine the county’s identity and invigorate its economy, they are divided over whether bringing slots and perhaps other casino gambling to Rosecroft will help their efforts or hinder the county’s progress.

Prince George’s was not one of the five Maryland jurisdictions allowed to host slots as the result of a 2008 statewide referendum. The bill up for a vote Tuesday aims to ensure that the county does not become the sixth slots site in the state.

But the measure, sponsored by council member Eric Olson (D-College Park), appears to face a difficult road on the council, which has a tight budget and a strong imperative to build a new hospital system, fix schools and fund economic development.

The debate over Olson’s bill, which began during the summer, has touched on many issues roiling Prince George’s as the county tries to emerge from political scandals and shed its image as the Washington suburb with the fewest assets and greatest challenges.

Although there is no formal proposal to bring slots to Rosecroft, Penn National Gaming reopened the harness racing track in August and has said it is eager to bring slots in as a way to make racing viable. Many Prince George’s politicians — along with some businesses, unions and residents — say slots could help the county increase tax collections, lower unemployment and create vibrant, spinoff businesses.

Joseph Gaskins, who heads a Prince George’s business group, said the potential for job creation at Rosecroft is “astronomical. . . . We are hoping to get our companies in the mix, get them hired and get jobs in the communities.”

Near the track, Michele Sims, an Oxon Hill resident, is not planning to play slots: “I budget myself. I have to watch what I spend.”

But if others want to gamble, that’s fine by her. “I am not offended by it. If it helps the county, it’s probably a good thing,” she said as she left the Oxon Hill library with her daughter.

To many local leaders, the discussions about economic development should focus on attracting upscale dining venues, a top-flight department store such as Nordstrom, high-paying jobs and money to fix the public schools.

Slots don’t help, some officials say.

“No one wants slots in their neighborhood,” said council member Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale), who backs Olson’s ban and is expected to be elected council chairman next month. “We can do so much better.”

It would take a new statewide referendum — which the General Assembly would have to initiate — to bring slots to Prince George’s. Tuesday’s vote would essentially send a message to the General Assembly about where the county stands on the issue. Should statewide voters approve slots for the county in the future, the County Council would still have a chance to examine the plans.

“We are trying to move the county forward to become a major employment, office and commercial center,” Olson said. “That is a vision for the county.”

The council in recent years has taken several steps to improve the quality of life in Prince George’s, tightening up on pawn shops, check-cashing stores and nightclubs, which some members consider crime magnets. A study by the Prince George’s Business Roundtable pointed to the social costs of slots, including concerns about gambling addiction, which can be particularly difficult for those who gamble to excess and live nearby.

“It’s a moral issue, a health-care issue and a crime issue,” said Tony Lee, pastor at Community of Hope AME Church in Iverson Mall, not far from Rosecroft.

Darryl Barnes, who heads Men Aiming Higher, a nonprofit mentoring organization, said slots would make his job more difficult.

“Our work to continue to inspire young people to be great is made much more difficult when you have the leadership saying ‘Take the easy route’ with gambling,” he said.

But County Executive Rushern L Baker III (D), who opposed slots when he was a state legislator, says he has few options with which to pay for the county’s needs. He said it would be folly to rule out any options that could boost local revenue. Olson’s bill, Baker said, is “premature.”

That argument also has resonated with some council members, such as Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington), who lives near Rosecroft and opposed slots as a state legislator. Patterson is being viewed as a likely vote against Olson’s ban, as is Karen Toles (D-Suitland).

Council Chairman Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie) said she will vote against Olson’s ban, preferring a local, nonbinding referendum to gauge local opinion. Member Derrick Leon Davis (D-Mitchellville) has said he will vote against Olson’s ban. Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro) is also leaning against Olson’s ban.

Expected to vote with Olson are Harrison, William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville) and Mary Lehman (D-Laurel).

State Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), whose district includes a portion of Prince George’s, will play a key role in finding money for the new hospital. He said the county has few places to turn.

“The only way to come up with $600 million or close to it for the University of Maryland teaching hospital in Prince George’s County is through slot machines,” Miller said. “The money will be dedicated solely for this hospital for quality medical care for Prince George’s County at a time when this is sorely lacking. . . . They have maxed out every type of tax available to them.”

Meanwhile, Penn National is circulating a study showing that slots would provide millions of dollars in economic benefits to Prince George’s, and it has highlighted a poll showing that county residents favor slots. Labor unions and the National Black Chamber of Commerce also back slots.

Slots opponents, including dozens of county ministers and community organizations, are flooding the council with letters and e-mails. Mel Forbes, an Upper Marlboro developer aligned with ministers, is circulating his “people’s plan” for mixed-use entertainment at the track, which would include betting on races but no slots. He commissioned a poll that shows broad opposition to slots.

State Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D- Prince George’s), a minister who represents the area near Rosecroft, also opposes slots. But unlike others, he isn’t ruling out using gambling to help Prince George’s. He prefers table games, which he said might be even more profitable than slots.

Baltimore developer David Cordish, who is building a slots parlor at Arundel Mills Mall across the border from Prince George’s, stands to benefit if there is no competition nearby.

“Rosecroft could easily be developed profitably with alternative non-gaming commercial uses that are compatible with the residential neighborhood it sits in and could generate significant jobs and taxes,” Cordish said in an e-mail.

Miller said lawmakers have few choices.

“These are not good times,” Miller said. “People don’t want to pay taxes, but they will gamble. It is really hard to come up with the revenues other than by something the people enjoy and want to do and that gives the government benefits.”

Miranda Spivack writes about government and politics in the suburbs, based in the Post’s bureau in Largo in Prince George’s County.
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