With an off-track betting referendum on the city's ballot Nov. 2, Manassas Park is getting some noisy kibitzing from its bigger, wealthier -- and worried -- neighbors.
Political leaders in Manassas and Prince William County are urging voters in the little city nearby to reject a proposal that would allow a betting parlor in a shopping center just off a major commuter route. Such a facility, they have argued, could tarnish the region's hard-earned family-friendly image.
"Butt out" has been the response of some Manassas Park City Council members, who have called their neighbors' advice arrogant.
"I urge voters to . . . reject misinformation and any and all such arrogant efforts by individuals, organizations or elected officials from other cities and counties to influence or distort the referendum question," said Manassas Park council member Noreen C. Slater, whose car sports a "Racing Yes! Vote Nov. 2!" bumper sticker.
She argued that the parlor would be an important economic opportunity for Manassas Park, which has struggled to bring in businesses.
Colonial Downs, Virginia's only parimutuel horse-racing track, has tried before to bring off-track betting to Manassas Park, most recently in 1996. Voters defeated that referendum by 74 votes. Since 1992, Northern Virginia ballot initiatives to allow off-track betting have been defeated soundly in at least six jurisdictions.
Again the track is hanging its hopes on the city, wagering that this time, most of Manassas Park's 5,400 registered voters will agree to bring the first legal betting parlor to Northern Virginia.
If the referendum passes, Colonial Downs plans to open a 20,000-square-foot betting parlor in Manassas Park Shopping Center, on a busy intersection of Route 28 less than two miles from the Fairfax and Prince William county lines. The company already operates six off-track betting facilities in Virginia.
Last month, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors stood against the proposal. In a resolution, supervisors stated that a betting parlor would add to the area's traffic, promote behavior harmful to families and possibly increase crime.
Fairfax supervisors have not taken a position on the matter, but Supervisor Elaine N. McConnell (R-Springfield), whose district is near the proposed parlor site, is wary of the parlor plan. She said she is supporting the measure's opponents, led by Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and church and community groups.
"I have a fear that this could become a big thing in the [area], as far as bringing in people who promote this," she said. "I don't think that's the kind of influence that cities as small as Manassas Park want for families."
Wolf, a longtime critic of gambling, is expected to address opponents of the parlor in Manassas Park on Tuesday. He has called gambling anti-family, saying it leads to bankruptcy, crime and addiction.
It's also anti-business, he said.
James Socas, a Democrat who is challenging Wolf in the Nov. 2 election, said that he considers the referendum a matter solely for Manassas Park voters to decide and that he hasn't taken a position on it.
Manassas Park leaders officially remain neutral on the referendum, but several have criticized as interference the advice from other jurisdictions.
"What's next, they will tell Manassas Park citizens who should be the next mayor, City Council members, commissioner of the revenue and treasurer in the city of Manassas Park?" asked Vice Mayor Kevin P. Brendel.
Prince William Supervisor W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville), whose district sits a few hundred yards from the proposed parlor site, said debate about the matter is healthy, regardless of where it comes from.
"Open governments debate issues," he said. "And that's what I think this is about. . . . What will it do [to the area]? That's the key."
Manassas Park supporters of the parlor have cast it in economic terms.
A bedroom community of 12,400, Manassas Park has struggled to attract the kind of businesses that could help broaden its tax base.
The city's tax rate, at $1.33 per $100 of assessed value, is the highest in Northern Virginia. Homeowners provide 86 percent of the city's real estate tax revenue -- which became a key issue in city elections in May.
Colonial Downs estimates that the betting parlor, which would allow patrons to bet on races nationwide, could provide the city $558,000 annually in tax revenue, and the track hopes that will appeal to voters.
The New Kent County, Va.-based company, which has had some financial troubles, could also use the estimated $90 million in bets that a Manassas Park parlor could take in each year.
Tammy Gehrke, 30, a stay-at-home mother, agreed that her city needs more business, just not this type of business.
Gambling is "just not something that I personally enjoy . . . and it's not really anything that I want to see coming around here," she said, adding that she fears that a betting parlor might spawn crime, addiction or traffic-clogged roads.
Colonial Downs hopes that Gehrke's views will lose out to those of such voters as Linda Skewes on Nov. 2.
Skewes, 59, an accountant, said she supports the parlor because she would love the convenience of having gambling down the street.
Now, she said, "I have to go to Delaware and Atlantic City and everyplace else, and I'm tired of traveling."
Skewes treks out of state to gamble about once a month. If a betting parlor came to the city, she said, she wouldn't overuse it.
"I love to go and enjoy [gambling], but I don't spend more than $500 a year," she said. "I know my limits. I need to keep a roof over my head."
Staff writer Michael Flagg contributed to this report.