Forgotten Md. Town Eyes a Future Revised

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2008

PERRYVILLE, Md. -- This report is one in a series on the five potential locations for slot machine gambling in Maryland.

Exit 93 snakes off Interstate 95 to a dated outlet shopping center, a weigh station for trucks and a main street with six "For Sale" signs in two blocks.

It's a place people drive through, hard by the Delaware line. Fifty years after the railroad left, a place waiting for something to happen.

Behind the curtain of oak and evergreen trees that line the highway for miles, a new industry could rise, reclaiming land once mined for sand and gravel. If voters approve in November, 2,500 slot machines would come to this quiet border town at the mouth of the Susquehanna River, anchoring a long-planned tourist development that was waiting for the right catalyst to proceed.

Of the five sites across Maryland where voters will be asked Nov. 4 whether to authorize as many as 15,000 slot machines, Cecil County's distinction is its strategic location. There are no racetracks or population centers here to provide a ready-made gambling base. But just as the railroad once carried goods and passengers from Philadelphia to Washington, the eight-lane interstate has the potential to lure thousands of drivers a day onto the exit ramp and away from competing slots venues in neighboring Delaware and Pennsylvania.

"If you want to gamble, you're already addicted," said William C. Manlove, president of the Cecil County Board of Commissioners. He once opposed slots but now, with a majority of local leaders, embraces them, echoing the pitch of many Maryland leaders from Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) on down: It is time for the state to stop gambling away millions of dollars outside the border and get slot machines of its own.

A national company, Penn National Gaming, announced last month that it had secured an option to buy 36 acres off Exit 93, on the grounds of a 150-acre bluff long eyed by Stewart Associates, the county's largest property owner, for a hotel, shops, restaurants and a conference center with views of the Chesapeake Bay. The $250 million complex would create a "mass of activity," said Michael Vaughn, who is working with the Stewart family to develop the property -- the kind of "destination center" gambling operators are building across the country.

Manlove said he drove recently to Harrington Raceway and Casino, one of three racetracks with slots in Delaware, to count the cars from out of state. "Seventy-three percent were from Maryland," he said. Delaware officials say that number is exaggerated.

Voters in Cecil have mixed opinions on gambling, as they do across Maryland. Off-track betting has been a fixture here for years, and veterans play on gaming machines at the American Legion and VFW halls and other service clubs. Many complain that their taxes are edging up uncomfortably, first with an increase in the local property tax rate and then with the higher sales tax passed last year by the legislature.

Budgets are pinched in Perryville, population 3,800, a town left behind by Cecil's thoroughbred horse wealth. Sand and gravel mining, a giant IKEA warehouse and a VA hospital provide jobs, but the town's scenic location where the river and the bay meet has not translated to lucrative waterfront development.

"They're talking about our taxes going down and all the money slots would bring to the county," Carol Baughman said as she folded pants at the Geoffrey Beene store in Perryville's struggling outlet center, where she works part time. Some county leaders predict that slots revenue, estimated at $11 million a year for the town and county, could allow them to shave the property tax by a few cents.

But this is a socially conservative place, where the Elkon Chamber of Commerce sponsored a National Marriage Day celebration in June, inviting couples to renew their vows. A Christian school sits less than a half-mile from the proposed slots site, and a giant billboard for the Tabernacle Church on Route 40 proclaims, "The blood of Jesus Christ cleaneth us from all sin."

"We see this as a plague," said the Rev. Harold Phillips, pastor of Pleasant View Baptist Church in Port Deposit, a tiny, onetime ferry crossing town on the Susquehanna. "They're gift-wrapping this issue with very pretty bows. But we are the ones who pick up the pieces after gambling ruins lives." Church leaders are fighting slots hard, arguing that legalizing gambling will only create gamblers, not keep existing ones home.

Others say they do not want to watch already strapped neighbors throw their money away.

"I'm like, what's the point?" said Rachel Wagner, 19, chasing her 2-year-old niece across the plaza of the outlet center. Wagner, who works at the local Subway, said: "Maybe it will give a lot of elderly people around here something to do. But I don't like it."

Penn National officials have begun public meetings with area residents, pitching the company as an economic boon for a community hungry for jobs. They have promised as many as 600 jobs from food service to accounting, with opportunities in management and salaries of as much as $40,000 a year.

And the company is working to erase the unsavory image of gambling. The target patrons in Perryville will be women over 55, officials tell residents.

"For us it's an economic issue," said William Eberhardt, the town mayor and a slots supporter.

The flow of money across the state border is hard to quantify. But a study last year by the Delaware Lottery, which regulates the state's racing and slots operations, found that Marylanders make up 42 percent of the patrons at Harrington, Dover Downs and Delaware Park. With the threat of legalized slots in Maryland and Pennsylvania on its way to installing 61,000 machines at 14 racetracks and stand-alone parlors, the Delaware legislature has raised its slots cap to authorize thousands of new machines, and the facilities are upgrading and renovating.

At Delaware Park, a 20-minute drive up I-95 from Perryville, Maryland license plates were hard to miss in the parking lot Tuesday afternoon. Fred Lunn, a heavy equipment operator from Baltimore County, had just arrived for his annual birthday outing. He had $300 in his pocket and would spend no more. He had spent $10 in tolls to get there, plus gas. "Sure, I'd play in Maryland," he said. "The tolls are outrageous."

Even Elizabeth Kafka, a nurse from Harford County who said she would not feel comfortable playing in Perryville because it's a low-income area, acknowledged that she and her husband would probably end up going there on their twice-monthly gambling trips.

"It's closer," Kafka said, watching the horses race while her husband played the machines inside. "It's that simple."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company