Anne Arundel slots plan still mired in doubt

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 6, 2009

After months of drama and delay, Maryland's largest planned slots casino -- and the hundreds of millions of dollars it promises to yield -- could rise or fall Monday night with a local zoning vote.

The Anne Arundel County Council has been planning to act on legislation that would allow a 4,750-machine facility to be constructed outside the food court of the Arundel Mills mall, which draws about 14 million visitors a year to its outlet stores and other attractions.

A state location commission, impressed by how much revenue the casino could generate for education programs, appears ready to give its blessing to the site earlier Monday. That would leave a key vote to the County Council, which has been paralyzed for much of the year, arguing about whether the negatives, including increased traffic, outweigh the financial gain.

"We've looked like a bunch of amateurs," said council member James Benoit (D-Crownsville), a slots opponent who has said he would like to kill the zoning bill.

The outcome of Monday's vote has grown more uncertain in recent days as word has spread that Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos might be angling to put slots at another location in Anne Arundel if the zoning measure fails.

On Wednesday, C. Edward Middlebrooks (R-Severn) stunned council colleagues by announcing that he will recuse himself from the vote, citing a potential conflict involving a possible suitor for the Laurel Park racetrack. The track was considered the leading location for slots in Anne Arundel this year but is now being auctioned off as part of bankruptcy proceedings.

Middlebrooks declined to provide details, saying only that he does not want to do "anything to taint the process." But Middlebrooks, a lawyer, has referred cases to Angelos's law firm in the past, which several council members said they assume is the issue.

In an interview Saturday, Angelos confirmed that he and two other investors have discussed trying to buy the track and making a play for the Anne Arundel slots license if the state reopens bidding.

"My key interest is the preservation of thoroughbred racing in Maryland," he said, adding that he does not think Middlebrooks has a conflict on Monday's vote.

With Middlebrooks sidelined, most observers say the odds of passing a zoning bill favorable to the mall have grown longer. The measure needs four votes, and only five of the seven council members now plan to take part. The council was already going to be one member short: Joshua J. Cohen (D), a slots opponent, will be sworn in as the mayor of Annapolis earlier in the day.

As of late last week, two council members had said they were likely to vote for the bill. One of them, Ronald C. Dillon Jr. (R-Pasadena), said he would not rule out picking up two more votes, given how unpredictable the council has been in recent weeks.

"When it comes down to it, I have a hard time thinking my colleagues would let an economic shot in the arm like this fall by the wayside," Dillon said.

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