Maryland county officials OK slots zoning measure

AP News
Posted: Dec 22, 2009 8:12 AM

A zoning measure needed to move forward the state's largest slot machine proposal near a popular shopping mall after months of delays was approved on Monday night.

The Anne Arundel County Council also OK'd a measure to allow slots at Laurel Park, a horse racing track. County Executive John Leopold has the option to choose between the two measures and has been outspoken in his support of the site near Arundel Mills Mall.

Alan Friedman, director of Leopold's office of government relations, told the council before the vote that the measure favoring the mall was in keeping with the law approved by the Legislature and a constitutional amendment approved by voters.

"The bill reflects the state law which was enacted by the General Assembly," Friedman said. "The bill also reflects the referendum and the description of the area called for in the referendum and approved by the voters of the state."

Leopold could not immediately be reached for comment.

The Cordish Co. wants to put 4,750 slot machines near the mall and has already received a license from a state commission. The proposal is the only one in the county that included the required licensing fee, which was $28.5 million for the proposed number of machines.

The proposal calls for a 215,000-square-foot facility, including a 125,000-square-foot gaming floor, which could open by December 2011. Estimates indicate that site alone could gross as much as $500 million a year, with about $243 million going to the state and about $25 million to the county, which are both facing big budget deficits.

Residents who live near the mall say the area already is crowded, and others have said they fear a large gambling hall will attract crime and drive down property values. A group that opposes the location plans to petition to halt the proposal.

Supporters of the Laurel Park site say a slots parlor at the mall would devastate the track.

Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, said the organization will "pursue all of our legal options and exhaust all means and measures to continue this fight."

He said the club will support "the counter initiative sponsored by the group Stop Slots at Arundel Mills Mall to bring this issue back to the voters of Anne Arundel County, who deserve the right to determine if a mall is what they wanted for gaming."

A proposal to put slots at the park by bankrupt Magna Entertainment Corp. was rejected by the state commission earlier this year when the company failed to submit the required licensing fee.

State officials' hopes that slot machines would help Maryland's dismal overall budget picture have run into a series of setbacks, but the vote Monday night was viewed as a positive sign after months of uncertainty about how the council would vote on a sensitive local issue.

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley, described the vote as "a significant step forward tonight that will allow the project to move forward at (Arundel) Mills, generate millions in revenue and create thousands of jobs in our state."

Maryland slots suffered a setback last week when the state's Video Lottery Facility Location Commission rejected a proposal by developers for a Baltimore site.

The Baltimore City Entertainment Group repeatedly missed deadlines for a revised plan and failed to come up with $19.5 million more to expand an initial proposal from 500 to 3,750 machines, which would have been the state's second-largest site. The Baltimore site will be reopened for new bids next year, when state officials hope there will be a better economic climate.

Two other sites have the green light to move forward, but even one of those has run into unexpected hurdles. The Ocean Downs race track near Ocean City had been scheduled to open next Memorial Day, but structural problems and asbestos concerns at the facility apparently will delay its opening. Ocean Downs is licensed for 800 slot machines.

Penn National Gaming already has approval for 1,500 machines at its site in Cecil County near Interstate 95. Work is under way to open that facility in October 2010.

Maryland voters approved a constitutional amendment last year for up to 15,000 machines in five areas, but the recession has had a big impact on potential developers. A proposal in Allegany County near Rocky Gap State Park in western Maryland was rejected earlier this year after developers failed to put up the licensing fee.