BERLIN — There appears to be an effort in the Maryland General Assembly to allow the Casino at Ocean Downs to serve alcohol 24 hours a day, although there were more questions than answers swirling around late yesterday as almost none of the parties had a definitive answer about where the measure was headed.
With the current session now past the halfway mark, an effort is underway to allow the Casino at Ocean Downs to offer alcoholic beverages during its hours of open operation, presumably 24 hours if the facility expands to those hours in the future. Already the Ocean Downs casino is open 24 hours a day on the weekends, but must cut off alcohol sales at 2 a.m.
The Casino at Ocean Downs is seeking relief from the 2 a.m. shutdown time for liquor sales and it appears to have some legislative muscle behind it. According to sources, Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch are pushing for either an amendment to the current bill addressing other issues related to alcohol sales in Worcester, or for a new piece of legislation aimed at strictly expanded hours of alcohol sales at the Berlin casino.
Caught in the middle are Worcester’s legislators, who appeared to change their tune on the proposed changes throughout the week as the issue continued to evolve. For example, Delegate Mike McDermott said earlier this week he and his colleagues had drafted language that would have affected the change, but backed off of it after a backlash from the liquor licensees, the county and the Board of License Commissioners.
“We had an amendment we had crafted that would have accomplished that,” said McDermott on Tuesday. “We sent it to the Worcester County Commissioners, the Board of License Commissioners and the licensees in Worcester County for their feedback. People were not ready for it. Obviously, there was opposition from the license holders, especially those in Ocean City.”
McDermott said he backed off the amendment after the groundswell of opposition in Worcester.
“As far as I’m concerned, this isn’t going anywhere,” he said. “I’ve talked to the business owners, the BLC and the County Commissioners and my promise to them is that before anything is presented, they will get a copy of it and a chance to weigh in on it.”
Complicating the issue is another element considered akin to throwing a bone to the liquor license holders who could be most affected by 24-hour-a-day liquor sales at the Berlin casino. According to multiple sources, a conciliatory measure for the licensees could be an earlier sunset date for the county’s Department of Liquor Control (DLC) wholesale operation. Currently, the DLC’s monopoly extends to 2016.
Now, as part of a bargaining chip with the license holders disgruntled by the proposed expansion of hours at Ocean Downs, serious consideration is being given to moving up the DLC’s wholesale operation expiration date to 2014 as a means of placating the bar and restaurant owners.
McDermott said earlier this week the issue blew up before any of the parties had formed a real opinion on the expansion and that the issue had cooled as of mid-week.
“There’s a process,” he said. “When these kinds of things are presented, I go to the jurisdictional body that it affects the most. In this case, that means the Worcester County Commissioners and the folks with the license board and I think we’re all in a good place with it now. Sometimes there is an alarm with people that there didn’t need to be. Sometimes, when somebody pulls the pin on a grenade, it’s hard to put that pin back in. Right now, it’s just a discussion and nobody needs to be alarmed.”
McDermott said he has heard from the licensees they wanted something in exchange if the casino was going to be allowed to serve alcohol during all hours of operation. That would likely be a provision to repeal the sunset clause for the DLC.
“Their feeling has been if this is inevitable at some point, they want something in return,” he said. “Their bargaining chip has been the sunset provision for the DLC.”
Meanwhile, Senator Jim Mathias said midweek all of the discussion about the changes at Ocean Downs and the possible repeal of the DLC sunset provision were happening on the House side and that he wasn’t privy to the discussions until the issue had reached a crescendo.
“It was never in my bill,” he said. “I never knew anything about it until it started to move in the House. The first thing I had to do was try to understand it, than I had to stop it. The liquor board, the industry, the county, the Ocean Pines Association all voiced opposition and deep concern.”
Mathias said Wednesday the opposition had tempered somewhat and all of the parties involved were working toward a solution.
“Now, it’s come around to at least having a discussion,” he said. “We need to have an open dialogue about this with all of the parties involved. Somehow, this got out on the playing field without any discussion. We have a gravely concerned industry, a gravely concerned county administration and a gravely concerned community. That’s what happens when things happen impetuously. They’ve taken a major step without any dialogue, and that’s how we got where we are.”
Mathias said he wasn’t necessarily opposed to changes in the operation of the casino and its hours, but not at the expense of those in opposition in the district.
“I want the casino to have the tools it needs to be successful, but at whose expense does it come,” he said.
However, late Thursday McDermott said the issues were being debated on the Senate side and not the House where the original amendment was proposed. Meanwhile, county officials said Thursday they were somewhat blindsided by the entire situation.
“It’s a really hot topic right now and it appears to be changing by the minute,” said County Commission President Bud Church. “The original legislation never stated anything about extended hours for alcohol sales, but it appears that’s what they’re seeking now. If it’s approved, it creates an uneven playing field for the rest of the liquor license holders in the county.”
Church said the commissioners remain opposed to the proposed changes for the casino, and certainly any proposed changes to the DLC, which provides a significant source of revenue to the county.
“The commissioners were polled informally and we agreed to send a message to our legislators opposing any changes,” he said
County Administrator Gerry Mason said late Thursday he has had conversations with the various parties, but felt the county was largely left on the sidelines.
“To be honest, we really haven’t been in the loop,” he said. “I do know there have been a lot of discussions swirling around on this and there are a lot of questions that are unanswered. It seems like the powers that be way up the chain are working this all out without much input from the county. We haven’t seen anything in writing, just a lot of informal conversations.”
Mason said in his understanding, the casino is not necessarily seeking approval for 24-hour alcohol sales at this point, but rather the authority to sell booze when the facility is open.
“From what I understand, it has to do with the hours of operation,” he said. “For example, if they wanted to be open until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., they want to be able to serve alcohol as long as they are open. I’m not sure if they’re seeking permission to serve alcohol 24 hours, but again, we haven’t seen a bill or an amendment.”