OCEAN CITY – It is no secret that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Governor Martin O’Malley have been proponents of slots in Maryland, and it is also no secret that slots have been both lauded and vehemently opposed by people all over the state as well as in Ocean City. With this in mind, it was decided at last week’s Tourism Commission meeting to take the latter stance and be vehemently opposed to slots in Maryland.
Over the past several years, legalizing slot machines in Maryland has become a heated and much debated issue. Proponents of slots claim that it would result in millions of dollars in annual economic impact as well as generate revenues for areas such as education and transportation. Proponents also argue that it will create jobs as well as bring money back to Maryland that has been lost to neighboring Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, all of which have slots.
Opponents of slot legislation view the word “slot” with the same negative connotation of any other four-letter word that they teach their children not to use. Opponents feel that the revenue brought in would have to be used to control the increase in crime that results from gambling as well as other costs that would arise with the installation of slots.
While Miller has maintained strong support for slots, O’Malley has taken a lesser stance, suggesting that slots be limited to established horse racing tracks where gambling is already occurring. The idea is that it would help to control the issue while bringing revenue and saving horse racing in Maryland.
While the compromise does call for a restriction on slots, opponents can only wonder how long it would be before slots overflow into all areas of the community. It’s the well-documented proliferation effort, opponents argue.
Slots or no slots, Maryland is facing a $1.5 billion structural deficit that must be rectified. Slots, as well as increases in state income and sales taxes and a reform of the state’s tax code seem to be the current options for dealing with the deficit.
The deficit issue and the possibility of slots has trickled down to the local level, forcing tourism leaders and elected officials to draw a line in the sand and chose what side of the slot debate they will rally from.
At the Tourism Commission meeting, Dr. Leonard Berger, owner of the Clarion Hotel in Ocean City, spoke on behalf of the Governor’s Economic Development Committee (EDC). Berger made it clear that he, as well as the EDC, is and will remain opponents of slots in Maryland.
“We feel that slots would be very detrimental to our way of life and to our tourism,” Berger said.
Berger explained that although he understood the state deficit and the need for revenue, he did not feel that slots were the answer to the state’s problem.
“We just don’t feel that it’s the right direction for Maryland to take,” he said.
The opposition to slots leaves tax increases as a possibility, which Berger said he would favor over slots.
Berger emphasized the importance of making a unified stand against slots, a stand that he hopes will get the message across to the proponents of slots in Annapolis.
“It’s very important that we send the message to Annapolis that the community is unified,” he said.
Berger added that all of the partners, the OCHMRA, the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, the EDC, and even local hotel and business owners, must come together and make a stand. Without a unified show of opposition, Berger feels that the message won’t be relayed with conviction.
Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, also voiced opposition to slots in Maryland.
“The pie is continuing to shrink,” she said as she explained the ever-increasing struggle to attract tourists and increase business.
Jones also pointed out that gaming, as a whole, is not what it used to be. She referred to gaming destinations, such as Atlantic City and Las Vegas, which are now seeking non-gaming attractions to counter-balance the decline in gaming. For example, Las Vegas is seeing an increase in resort spas, promoting luxury resorts over gaming and casinos.
Atlantic City was also discussed at the meeting with several members noting what happened to the city after casinos moved in. The consensus was that although the casinos brought booming hotels and business, it left the surrounding non-gaming areas in squalor.
The “bait and switch” is of concern to the members as well, with everyone agreeing that the promise of funds for schools and education could be pushed aside by the increased need for law enforcement and rehabilitation programs that could fill the state as a result of slots.
The tourism commission voted unanimously to take the stand of opposition against slots, agreeing that the next step would be partnering with other sectors of the community including the Ocean City Mayor and Council.