Slots Firm Tries to Reassure Arundel Mall Neighbors on Crime, Traffic Concerns

By John Wagner
Washington Post staff writer
Thursday, September 10, 2009

Representatives of the company that wants to bring slot machine gambling to Arundel Mills mall sought Wednesday to counter "misperceptions" that its planned casino would increase crime and traffic and faced tough questions about its inability to get local zoning approval for the project.

"This really will be one of the great gaming-entertainment sites in the country," Joe Weinberg, a principal with Baltimore-based Cordish, told a state commission that is expected to decide this fall whether to issue a license to operate 4,750 slot machines at the Anne Arundel County mall.

Weinberg faced off at a public hearing against homeowners angry about the company's proposal to build its freestanding Live!-brand casino in a parking lot near the mall's food court entrance. Among the concerns cited: declining property values, drunken driving and new choke points for traffic.

"We recommend that you investigate suitable alternative locations," said Dan Donovan, who lives two miles from the mall.

The casino, scheduled to open in late 2011, would be the largest of five slots sites authorized last fall by Maryland voters -- and Cordish's proposal has been the most controversial by far. The plan, which also had a sizable number of supporters at the hearing, became the only pending bid for an Anne Arundel license after the commission in February disqualified a proposal to put slots at Laurel Park racetrack.

State legislation requires local governments to give their blessing to each of the casinos, which are projected to collectively generate hundreds of millions a dollars a year for state government.

Zoning legislation needed to build the Anne Arundel casino languished for months at the County Council before County Executive John R. Leopold (R) pulled it in July. And the council president has said she has no intention of resuming debate until the state commission decides whether the mall is a suitable site.

However, at Wednesday night's crowded hearing, commission member Robert R. Neall, a former state legislator, said that "to reverse the process would be an absurdity. . . . We're going to do this the right way."

Donald C. Fry, chairman of the seven-member commission, was less definite, saying, "Obviously we would prefer to see the County Council move first." But Fry said it might be possible to issue Cordish a license contingent on zoning occurring a short time later.

In a site visit at the mall, and later at the commission hearing, Weinberg promoted his company's reputation for building and operating entertainment complexes elsewhere, as well as the 4,000 construction and operations jobs he said the casino would generate.

He also argued that fear of increased crime "clearly is a misperception of what these facilities are." Gaming customers elsewhere in the country tend to be older and more educated and have higher incomes than the population at large, he said. And, he said, there will be heavy security at the casino, which will be off-limits to people younger than 21.

Weinberg said concerns about traffic are misplaced, too. The greater concern, he said, is the ability to find parking at the mall, and Cordish is planning to build a garage that nets 3,000 new spots.

The commission members got a first taste of opposition as they gathered in the mall for a presentation. Philip Van der Vossen, a nearby homeowner, asked, "If there were a casino here, would you like to buy my house?"

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