OCEAN CITY – Although the reality of slots at Ocean Downs now appears closer than ever with the passage of a bill last month to let the voters of Maryland decide the issue once and for all in a referendum vote next November, local opposition has not waned as several business leaders and elected officials have vowed to keep up the fight.
The slots issue was raised again this week during the resort’s Economic Development Committee (EDC) monthly meeting. Despite the apparent writing on the wall, local business leaders and elected officials have not given up the fight, although for some, the attitude appears to have changed from one of straight opposition to damage control.
After a contentious battle, state lawmakers during a special session last month passed two significant pieces of legislation that will likely settle the slots issue in Maryland. The first is a plan to place roughly 15,000 video gaming machines at five locations across the state including as many as 3,250 at Ocean Downs near Berlin. The sister bill will allow the voters of Maryland to decide if they want slots or not with a simple majority, regardless of the vote in individual jurisdictions where the gaming venues are proposed, in a referendum vote during the General Election next November.
There appears to be a groundswell of support for the gaming machines, given the attractive revenue estimates and the state’s current structural deficit problem. With just five locations scattered around Maryland, the potential benefits will likely outweigh any perceived negative impacts for many state voters who will not get slots venues in their backyard.
Even if the majority of Worcester County’s citizens vote against slots, a simply majority of the voters across the entire state will decide the issue. Essentially, despite having one of the five proposed venues at Ocean Downs, the vote in Worcester might mean little because the county’s entire voting citizenry amounts to a precinct or two in the more populous jurisdictions in the center of Maryland.
“We need to continue to spread the word about how detrimental slots could be for Ocean City and our local economy,” said EDC Chairman Dr. Lenny Berger on Wednesday. “People don’t want it in their backyard, but they’re putting them in areas where there is the least amount of voters. If we can beat the referendum, we can still keep this out of here.”
Local elected officials continue their strong opposition to slots in general and at Ocean Downs specifically. At the request of the Mayor and Council, the County Commissioners sent an 11th hour formal letter of opposition to slots at Ocean Downs, but could not dissuade state lawmakers from moving forward with the plan. Nonetheless, Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan holds out hope the slots plan can still be derailed.
“At one point in time, we were told a letter from our County Commissioners could keep slots out of Ocean Downs, but that clearly wasn’t the case,” he said. “The battle isn’t over. We still have the referendum and there are some zoning issues to consider.”
While Ocean City has been out in front of the local opposition to the gaming machines at Ocean Downs, Ocean Pines has been decidedly mum on the issue despite the proposed venue being just a stone’s throw from the community.
“Ocean Pines is important in all of this,” he said. “We keep hearing don’t let it happen in Ocean Pines, but I think the town’s position has been clear on this.”
While she could not speak for the Ocean Pines elected officials, Ocean Pines Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Carol Ludwig said her organization has been relegated to the sidelines for the most part.
“We’re really kind of caught in the middle,” she said. “Our charter doesn’t allow the Ocean Pines Chamber to take a stand on the issue.”
With the uncertainties surrounding the referendum vote next November, local elected officials and business leaders are already searching for alternative methods of keeping the gaming machines out of Ocean Downs. In the days following the state legislature’s approval of the slots bill and the referendum, it came to light there may be zoning issues surrounding their implementation at Ocean Downs, although the county has officially said it would not likely fight slots at the racetrack based on anything in the current county code and that the racetrack is a conforming special exception in an agricultural district.
County Commissioner Linda Busick said on Wednesday she would not vote for any changes to the code to accommodate slots unless some concessions were made.
“I would not support any rezoning at the racetrack to accommodate slots until certain issues are resolved,” she said. “There will be a need for additional police and fire protection. That road needs to be addressed.”
With the likely approval of slots in the statewide referendum, the county’s position might change from straight opposition to a, “if we can’t beat them, join them,” mode.
“It may become a reality, but we’ll work very hard to ensure we negotiate the very best deal for us,” said Busick.