Ministers, community activists and the head of the NAACP in Prince George’s delivered a clear message Tuesday to the County Council: Slot machines at Rosecroft Raceway would be a scourge on the community.
“We do not need more of the kind of pain now being foisted on our congregations and communities because of the economic slowdown,” said Jonathan Weaver, pastor of Greater Mount Nebo African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bowie and the leader of a group of about 150 religious leaders opposed to slots.
The council is considering a zoning bill sponsored by council member Eric Olson (D-College Park) that would effectively ban slots in the county. A 2008 statewide referendum allowed slots at five sites in Maryland, including neighboring Anne Arundel County. At the time, many Prince George’s political and religious leaders were against slots. But as some of those other sites opened, some opponents have been rethinking their opposition.
Penn National Gaming, which bought Rosecroft in February and recently reopened the Fort Washington track, released a study Tuesday asserting that building a full-fledged casino at Rosecroft would pump about $2.5 billion into the Maryland economy during construction and the first five years of operation. Labor unions, which traditionally have been aligned with the all-Democratic Prince George’s County Council, are in favor of slots, citing the potential for job growth.
Four council members have announced their opposition to slots, and the other four council members are thought to be leaning against slots. Council members William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville); Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale) and Mary A. Lehman (D-Laurel) are backing Olson’s ban on slots.
Several residents who spoke at a council committee meeting on Tuesday said slots would harm Prince George’s image and do little to bolster the local economy.
“If we are serious about moving Prince George’s County forward, then we have to be serious about what slots means in Prince George’s County,” said Arthur A. Turner Jr., who recently lost a bid for the council.
“Slots will not help lift Prince George’s County,” said Turner, who, along with other opponents, has suggested that the county look for development that helps create higher-end jobs.
Only one person spoke against the Olson bill. Joseph Gaskins, who heads a local business group, said that if the county does not allow slots, the financial benefits that could have come to Prince George’s will end up in Maryland jurisdictions where slots are already legal.
Behind the scenes, the slots debate is entwined in a political power struggle that pits some politicians who have opposed slots in the past against their political mentors, such as Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), whose district includes less than 10 percent of the Prince George’s population.
Miller, who has looked for ways to save the racing industry, is eager to have slots at Rosecroft. And there have been hints from Annapolis that revenue from slots could go toward the millions of dollars Prince George’s needs to build a regional public hospital to replace ailing Prince George’s Hospital Center.
Miller has supported the careers of many Prince George’s politicians, including County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) and council member Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro). Baker opposed slots when he was a state legislator but has yet to take a position on the Olson bill. Franklin has not publicly stated his position, but as a community activist he opposed slots, saying the machines would not help Prince George’s attract the upscale development and businesses it needs to build its tax base.
Council member Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington) also opposed slots while a member of the state legislature but did not take a position Tuesday. Patterson, who is chairman of the committee considering the bill, set a committee vote for Tuesday.