OCEAN CITY – Led by State Comptroller Peter Franchot, who was decidedly frank about his strong views on the subject, a handful of resort business leaders gathered at Harrison’s Harborwatch on Monday to rally in opposition to slots in Maryland in general and Worcester County specifically as the statewide referendum on November draws closer.
Franchot and his staff met with resort business owners and Chamber of Commerce officials to begin organizing a concerted effort to defeat slots during a statewide referendum on the issue in November. Voters will decide whether to amend the state’s constitution to allow as many as 15,000 slot machines, or video lottery terminals (VLTs), at five locations spelled out in the bill including 2,500 at Worcester County’s Ocean Downs, just a few miles from the Boardwalk location where the anti-slots meeting was held on Monday.
Franchot has become the front man for a group called Marylanders United to Stop Slots and its most vocal supporter, at least publicly. The group is counting on a groundswell of opposition to slots in Maryland and is organizing opponents in every corner of the state including Ocean City, where many among the local business community share grave concerns about the impacts of the gaming devices.
Franchot and members of his staff made a tour stop in Ocean City this week to garner support of the local business community in opposition to slots, which he characterized as “corrosive.” The state comptroller all but guaranteed victory for the anti-slots side in the referendum in November and praised resort business leaders for taking a stand on the issue.
“Ocean City business leaders have been terrific in their opposition to slots and it takes some grit to stand up to the political machine in Annapolis,” he said. “I promise we’ll prevail in November. There is a big bubble over Annapolis, but when you get outside that bubble, the opposition to slots is strong.”
The purpose of Monday’s meeting, in part, was to brainstorm on ideas about how to get the message out, including advertising campaigns, posters, bumper stickers, billboards and other media. However, Franchot did not waste the opportunity to remind resort business leaders the effort will likely take a significant amount of funding and urged them to open their wallets for the cause.
“The money issue is going to be David versus Goliath,” he said. “They’re going to spend $15 million to our $1 million, but we’re going to spend our money efficiently, effectively and professionally.”
The comptroller said the November referendum represents a watershed moment in Maryland.
“This is one of those points in Maryland history where we’re going to go in one direction or the other,” he said. “There will be no turning back. There will be no re-do.”
Franchot said one only needs to look at communities in neighboring states where slots and gambling are legal to see the potential devastating effects the gaming devices have had. He warned of the potential for a similar fallout if slots are approved at Ocean Downs.
“If you have any question about what slots at Ocean Downs would bring, go to Atlantic City and see for yourself,” he said. “It’s a real threat to the family image of Ocean City.”
Unfortunately, according to the comptroller, residents in the five communities targeted for slots might have their votes watered down in November. The referendum will pass or fail on a simple majority of the voters of the state regardless of where they head to the polls, with no weight given to communities where the sites are proposed.
“The Eastern Shore can vote 90 percent to 10 percent in opposition to slots, but a majority of the state will carry the day,” he said. “It’s inherently unfair. People in the communities targeted for slots won’t necessarily determine their own fate.”
One of the pillars of the pro-slots side has been the number of Marylanders who travel to slots venues in nearby Delaware and other states to play the gaming devices. In a report prepared by the governor’s office last year, researchers traveled to slots venues in Delaware and other states to count the number of Maryland license plates in the parking lots, but Franchot pointed out on Monday the research is flawed.
“They go to Delaware and count Maryland license plates,” he said. “What they should do instead is take a close look at the cars in the parking lots. They’re the most beat up, run down old cars. The people are poor. They’re trying to gamble to pay the bills.”
Franchot told resort business leaders to remain firm in their commitment to the anti-slots cause despite pressure from some factions of the state government in Annapolis.
“I wouldn’t be bashful about speaking out on your opposition,” he said. “There is strong skepticism out there for turning over the economic future of our state to out of town gambling interests.”
Scott Arceneaux, senior advisor for Marylanders United to Stop Slots, was also on hand for Monday’s meeting with resort business leaders. He delivered a similar message, although it lacked the fire and brimstone extolled by Franchot. Arceneaux said the grassroots effort against slots is gaining a foothold across the state and urged Ocean City leaders to continue to lead the effort.
“We know what we’re up against,” he said. “We’re going against the political machine in Annapolis, but we’re taking a grassroots approach. We’re going neighbor to neighbor and business leader to business leader to get the word out slots are bad for Maryland.”
Arceneaux said the campaign is making progress already. He said early polls showed around 60 percent of Marylanders were in favor of slots in the beginning, but that figure has since dropped into the mid-50s.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised everywhere we go,” he said. “People want their voice heard. The message is consistent- please don’t put slots in our community. The pro-slots people aren’t out there saying why they want them. Nobody is out there arguing for them.”