Robert McCartney: Disappointed About Slots? You Bet.

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, October 18, 2009

The consequences of last year's referendum legalizing slot machines in Maryland have been deplorable. The latest evidence of that is the sorry fact that after so many years of strife over the issue, the future of gambling machines in the Washington region depends for now on two Anne Arundel County Council members.

Council Chairman Cathleen M. Vitale (R-Severna Park) and member Daryl Jones (D-Severn) are described as having the decisive votes on whether to make the necessary zoning changes to allow building what would be the state's largest casino at Arundel Mills mall near Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport.

Vitale and Jones, who represents the district that includes the sprawling mall, have been delaying taking a position for months. Many constituents are pushing them to reject the casino on grounds that it would attract crime and congestion. Now the state slots commission, which is believed to favor the site as long as the zoning is set, is considering setting a deadline for the council to act.

Regardless of how the council vote goes, the delays and infighting highlight the poor results of the effort to bring slots gambling to Maryland since the referendum. The disappointments, although partly the result of the recession, are a black mark for the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D). Getting slots approved, and thus ending years of debate over the topic, is one of his few high-profile achievements.

Although the state commission has approved a first casino at Ocean Downs racetrack near Ocean City, and it could okay a second one in Perryville on Interstate 95 near Delaware on Wednesday, the referendum's aftermath has been even worse than opponents expected:

-- The big money that slots were supposed to generate to help fund state schools isn't materializing soon. Instead of robust, competitive bidding for the right to build casinos, the state got only four legitimate bids for five sites. In the initial bidding, applicants together sought fewer than half of the hoped-for 15,000 machines.

-- The sales pitch that installing slots at Maryland racetracks would save the state's treasured horse industry has not panned out. Ocean Downs is the only track getting the machines, and it's not even a prestigious thoroughbred track but one for harness racing. The other three are to be at the Anne Arundel mall, in Perryville and in downtown Baltimore near the stadiums where the Ravens and Orioles play. The racing industry is supposed to get a cut of the revenue but not the foot traffic to the tracks that it wanted.

-- The state doesn't have enough money to pay for necessary infrastructure at some of the sites. In Anne Arundel, in particular, the combination of gamblers at the mall and the expansion of nearby Fort Meade threatens to worsen traffic problems. The casino is estimated to attract an extra 12,000 visitors each day, an increase of about 30 percent, while Fort Meade is getting more than 20,000 new jobs over the next three years. The state describes two intersections by the mall as overcrowded, and it just cut its capital spending on roads by $2.1 billion, or about a fifth, through 2014.

The Anne Arundel casino would be the only slots site in the Washington area, unless you count Charles Town, W.Va., as part of our region. Its developer, Cordish Cos., expects to get at least half its patrons from around the Capital Beltway.

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