The doubters say it can't be done: There's not enough time to collect petition signatures. And even if slot machines make the Nov. 2 ballot, the U.S. Congress would never let anyone build a slots emporium in the nation's capital.
All that may be true. But there is growing evidence that D.C. businessman Pedro Alfonso and his attorney, former council member John Ray, are nonetheless deadly serious about their plan to ask voters to give them an exclusive 10-year license to operate 3,500 slot machines on New York Avenue NE.
A June 2 hearing before the Board of Elections and Ethics was packed with Ward 5 businessmen and political activists, most of whom turned out to support the slots proposal. Their presence was testament to more than two months of ground-laying by Ray, Alfonso and their as-yet unnamed partners, who held at least two community meetings in Ward 5 to generate excitement for the plan.
A newly hired spokeswoman for the initiative, Ann Walker Marchant, said the group also plans to hire professionals to circulate petitions to collect signatures of about 17,500 registered D.C. voters before a July 6 deadline to qualify for a spot on the Nov. 2 ballot.
And after the hearing, a cadre of assistants distributed a slick and expensive-looking package of materials that included drawings of the proposed $510 million "Capital Horizon Entertainment Complex." The package contained a site plan showing the proposed location of a "marquee hotel," a bowling alley, theaters, restaurants and other coveted amenities that would replace the shabby garages, towing company, gas station and bar that now occupy the site on New York Avenue between Bladensburg Road and Montana Avenue.
Also included: a financial analysis claiming the project would create an estimated 1,500 jobs and generate $765 million a year in slots revenue, of which 25 percent would be given to the District government. The rest -- $575 million a year -- would be kept by Alfonso and his partners. After operating expenses, according to the analysis, they would claim annual profits of $168 million. Every year.
In their most recent display of financial determination, Ray's assistant, Margaret Gentry, persuaded the editor of the D.C. Register to publish a supplement to the June 4 register containing a revised text of the slots initiative. Without a supplement, Alfonso and crew would have had to wait until June 11 for publication, potentially slowing approval of the petition language by the elections board.
A register editor formatted the text and turned it over to Gentry, who shelled out about $2,000 at a nearby Kinko's to print and bind the supplement. She then returned to the register's office bearing $340 worth of first-class stamps to ship it to 405 subscribers.
Earlier this week, it looked like that move might backfire, as city officials expressed alarm at Gentry's ability to cut through the city's red tape with what seemed like preferential speed. District of Columbia Secretary Sherryl Hobbs Newman said the supplement does not count as an official publication. And elections board general counsel Kenneth J. McGhie said it seems increasingly unlikely that the slots team would be able to jump through the bureaucratic hoops needed to make the ballot.
"The window is getting smaller and smaller," McGhie said. "Who knows what's going to happen?"
But Alfonso and Ray show no sign of throwing in the towel. In an interview Monday, Ray said the elections board could "make it impossible" for slots backers to meet the July deadline. But if the board moves "in another direction, we could continue to go forward."
As for Congress, Ray said, "If the citizens decide this is good enough for them, that should be good enough for Congress."
Looks Like a Slot . . .
Ray, by the way, is adamant that his proposal has nothing to do with slot machines. What he and Alfonso want to bring to the District are "video lottery terminals."
"This is not gambling. This facility does not have casino-type gambling. This is an economic development project," said Ray, who as a D.C. Council member led a campaign against riverboat gambling. "This is an entertainment complex which has a video lottery terminal component."
And what are video lottery terminals?
According to gambling experts, they are a form of "machine gaming" closely resembling casino-style slot machines, and taking about the same amount of money from players. Players say they are just as addictive, and a visit to any slots emporium -- whether a casino, a video lottery bar or a bingo pull-tab palace -- reveals largely elderly devotees glued at all hours to the jangling, colorful machines.
"The player thinks it's a slot machine," said William N. Thompson, a professor of public administration at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who has written extensively on gambling in America. "It quacks like a duck. Therefore, it's a duck."
Eugene Christiansen, chief executive of Christiansen Capital Advisors, an international gambling consulting firm, said there are legal and operational differences between casino-style slot machines and video lottery terminals.
"But the whole idea behind VLTs is to satisfy consumer appetites for machine gaming. That's why people play them," Christiansen said. "The rhetoric you're dealing with sounds to me like rhetoric designed to soften the friction that surrounds the introduction of any kind of machine games."