OCEAN CITY — While the jury is still out on the state’s nascent slots program with just two of the five potential sites open, state lawmakers will certainly debate the issue of adding table games during the General Assembly session early next year, and for the first time this week, at least publicly, the issue of opening up Ocean City to gaming facilities was broached.
During the Economic Development Committee (EDC) meeting this week, local legislators briefed resort business leaders on a variety of issues including the near certain introduction of a bill in the next General Assembly session allowing table games at Maryland’s fledgling slots facilities, including the Casino at Ocean Downs near Berlin.
When the voters of Maryland approved slots at five highly regulated locations around the state in 2008, local lawmakers were successful in brokering significant restrictions on the types of offerings at the Berlin location. Less than a year after the Casino at Ocean Downs opened last January, state lawmakers are already about to debate an expansion to table games, and some in the resort business community, who steadfastly fought gaming at the Berlin track for years, now appear to be embracing an “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude.
“We sold our souls to the gaming industry,” said Dr. Lenny Berger, Clarion Resort owner and former EDC chairman, this week. “Now, as we move toward table games, why wouldn’t we consider putting gambling in our town? It would have to be controlled and regulated, but if you’re going to expand it anyway, why wouldn’t we consider maximizing it.”
Senator Jim Mathias (D-38) said while an expansion to table games will certainly be on the table in the upcoming General Assembly session, a consideration of an expansion to more facilities in other areas was likely premature. Mathias said if and when the time came, he could not see himself supporting an expansion into Ocean City.
“We need to stand firm with protecting the integrity of this city,” he said. “We need to remember where our points of compromise were and are during this debate. We realized having it close to us and heavily regulated, rather than in Cambridge where it could impact our convention business and tourism was in our best interest.”
Mathias said he and other legislators, including Delegate Norman Conway (D-38B) went to bat for the resort business community in an effort to gain certain protections for the resort business community.
“When it came down to a vote, I heard the business leaders in Ocean City say they wanted reasonable protections to allow their tourism industry and slots to thrive and co-exist and that’s happened to a large degree,” he said. “Now, on the threshold of the next evolution, I don’t support it here on our island.”
Some EDC members questioned the dedication of some of the revenue generated by the Casino at Ocean Downs to the jurisdictions on the Western Shore, including Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, for example, where state leaders mined for votes to get the slots referendum in front of the voters of Maryland in 2008. Mathias explained it was a simple matter of old school politics.
“It’s an adult world we live in and to the victors go the spoils,” he said. “The leadership had to put the votes together and the votes weren’t here on the Eastern Shore. Whether that will be revisited, we’ll have to wait and see.”
In terms of the stringent restrictions and regulations in place at Ocean Downs to protect the business interests in Ocean City, Mathias said he would continue to battle for them.
“It’s no secret [Senate] President [Mike] Miller wants those regulations to go away,” he said. “Mr. Rickman is a dignified and intelligent business man and he wants to work with this community. He knows I’m resistant to putting this tourism economy at risk. The evolution is at the door, but I’m extremely reluctant to put this tourism economy at risk.”