By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; B02
An unlikely coalition of anti-slots activists and Maryland horsemen vowed Tuesday to collect enough signatures to force a public vote on the new zoning law that allows construction of the state's largest casino at Arundel Mills mall.
The groups' mobilization followed Monday night's long-delayed passage of a zoning bill by the Anne Arundel County Council. County Executive John R. Leopold (R) signed the measure Tuesday morning, saying revenue from slots would not only benefit state education programs but also improve his county budget outlook.
Opponents of the mall-based casino said the fight was not over. Like other Maryland jurisdictions, Anne Arundel allows residents to challenge legislation through a ballot drive. If the opponents collect about 19,000 signatures, the zoning law will be suspended pending next year's election.
"It's a high bar, but we're going to have a small army out there," said Rob Annicelli, president of Stop Slots at Arundel Mills, a group that unsuccessfully sought to convince the council that the 4,750-machine casino would cause unmanageable traffic congestion and erode the "family-friendly" atmosphere of the mall.
The Maryland Jockey Club, operators of Laurel Park racetrack, and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association said they would join the effort. Both groups lobbied against the zoning bill for the mall, hoping its defeat would revive the possibility of putting slots at Laurel, which is scheduled to be auctioned off next month in bankruptcy proceedings.
Tom Chuckas, president of the Jockey Club, said his organization would invest money in the petition drive but declined to discuss other specifics, including whether the effort would involve paid signature-gatherers. "All options and avenues are on the table," Chuckas said.
In a round of media interviews Tuesday, David Cordish, chairman of Cordish Cos., the casino's developer, said he was unconcerned by the petition drive and that it would not affect the casino's planned December 2011 opening. Cordish said his Baltimore-based company is prepared to spend tens of millions of dollars on design work and other preliminary steps while signatures are gathered.
"It's a free country. Anyone can petition anything they want. Good luck," Cordish said. "I'm supremely confident that the people have spoken, and they'll speak again if need be."
Last year, a statewide ballot measure authorizing five slots locations in Maryland, including one unspecified site in Anne Arundel, passed with the support of 59 percent of the county's voters. Anti-slots activists argue that county voters will be less supportive now that the mall is the designated Anne Arundel site.
Just getting the question on the ballot will be no easy task, some council members and other observers suggested.
Under the Anne Arundel charter, the number of signatures collected must exceed 10 percent of the number of votes cast in the county in the last gubernatorial election. In 2006, 189,150 votes were cast.
The first half of the signatures must be turned in within 45 days; the rest are due 30 days after that.
"I don't want to discount anyone's passion for an issue, but it's a long shot," said council member James Benoit (D-Crownsville). "These things rarely succeed."
In an interview, Cordish also pushed back against arguments that Laurel needs slots to be a viable racetrack. His company is among a half-dozen suitors seeking to buy the track and has consistently said it would prefer to put slots at the mall regardless. Arundel Mills attracts 14 million visitors a year.
Under Maryland law, a portion of slots proceeds will go the racing industry, regardless of where the slot machines are.
"I don't think, in the right hands, that horse racing is doomed," Cordish said. "You're going to have a lot of money to rejuvenate the tracks, increase the purses and do this the way it should be done."
According to a Cordish news release Tuesday, the casino at Arundel Mills will be dubbed Maryland Live!
Cordish said during the interview that the name was "tentative."
"To say we've absolutely nailed the name, I'm holding back on you," he said.