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Pr. George's seems opposed to legal card games at Rosecroft

By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 6, 2010; B02

Given the chance, the odds would be long that Prince George's County residents would approve legalized card games at a financially troubled racetrack in the county.

Religious leaders don't like it.

Civic leaders aren't fond of it.

And local civil rights leaders say the games could move Prince George's, the country's most affluent majority-black county, several steps backward.

The Maryland Senate recently passed a bill that could bring Las Vegas-style table games, including poker and blackjack, to Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington.

Under the legislation, which is now in a House committee, voters statewide would be asked in a referendum to decide whether poker and blackjack should be allowed at the racetrack.

If the proposal passes, Rosecroft Raceway, where simulcast racing ended in May because of contract disputes, would be the only venue statewide where card games would be allowed. Voters approved 15,000 slot machines at five locations in 2008, but none of those sites has machines.

Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George's), the bill's sponsor and a staunch gambling opponent in the past, previously said that expanded gambling was a "desperation move" to help keep the track afloat.

Mark Vogel, a developer who hopes to purchase Rosecroft, has said that hundreds of jobs could be lost if card games are not allowed at the track. Muse also cited job losses as his reason for sponsoring the bill.

The Innovation Group, an Orlando-based firm that provides analyses and forecasts for the gaming industry, found that table game operations would bring 1,250 to 1,500 jobs to the track. Revenue could reach $300 million, with up to $145 million coming from out of state, according to the study, which was commissioned this year by Mark Vogel Companies.

"I know Vogel is working it hard, and I know we want to do something to keep it open," said Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George's). "But I just don't see [the referendum] happening. . . . But of course, anything can happen" in Annapolis.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's) tried unsuccessfully last month to add an amendment to the bill that would have required not only a majority of statewide voters to approve the measure in a referendum, but also a majority of Prince George's voters to approve it.

"You could have 52 percent of the state approve it and 65 percent of the county not want it, and it still [could] be thrust upon" Prince George's, Pinsky said. "In terms of public policy, I think it's ridiculous."

Pinsky said he believes that the only reason the slots issue passed in a 2008 referendum is because Prince George's residents knew there was no site in the county.

In the waning days of the legislative session, Vogel is lobbying intensely and Muse is pushing on behalf of the bill.

Despite that, many delegates say the chances of the bill's passage in the House appear slim, because delegates want to see the state's slots program up and running before any additional gambling is approved.

"There would have to be a dramatic shift or change of heart," Davis said.

But if the measure does make it onto the November ballot, it will have an uphill battle in the county, several residents predicted.

William Cavitt, vice president of the Indian Head Highway Area Action Council, a civic group in Fort Washington, said the state has "unrealistic expectations" about gambling.

"We're opposed to it," he said. "They seem to have expectations that money will fall out of the sky. . . . It's not a way to make money."

Rev. Grainger Browning Jr., pastor of Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, said gambling does not improve the quality of life. "The negatives outweigh the positives," he said.

June White Dillard, president of the Prince George's chapter of the NAACP, said she worries about addiction and increased criminal activity.

"Gambling preys on the lowest-income people," Dillard said. "They play the slots, they buy the lottery tickets and they are least able to afford it. . . . Making it tables doesn't make any difference."

But Vogel has said that slot machines and card games are very different. They attract different clienteles and the racetrack would probably draw people from various parts of the region, not solely from Prince George's, he said.

Ollie P. Anderson, a member of the board of the South County Economic Development Association, said his group has not taken a position on the bill, but he does not agree with the opponents.

Anderson said his son worked as a busboy at Rosecroft about 30 years ago, and "it was a valuable contribution to his growth today."

Unlike slots, Anderson said, card games attract professional poker players. "I don't think you will see rent money . . . going to gambling," he said.

Anderson said he also thinks that there would be a financial benefit for the county.

"It will create jobs, and it will be an opportunity for small and minority businesses to get contracts to provide services at Rosecroft," he said.

Executives at National Harbor, which is about five miles from Rosecroft, would not comment on the impact card games might have on the waterfront resort. But Kent Digby, a vice president, said development "is good for growth and good for business."

Kwasi Holman, president of the Prince George's County Economic Development Corp., said his agency has not done any studies on legalized card games at Rosecroft and their possible impact on future development in the county.

"I think right now that's a political issue, not an economic development issue," Holman said.

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