Ocean City, County Voters Support Slots

OCEAN CITY – For most, it wasn’t surprising Maryland voters heartily endorsed authorizing slots with a passage of a statewide referendum on Tuesday, but few could have seen the sweeping support for the video lottery terminals in practically every corner of every jurisdiction in the state.

While the polls, and certainly the rhetoric, leading up to Tuesday’s election suggested a clear divide and an anticipated tight race on slots, Marylanders in droves voted for the gaming machines when they got to the polls.

Statewide, the results on Question 2, which will authorize 15,000 slot machines at five sites across the state including 2,500 in Worcester County, were not close with 59 percent of Marylanders voting in favor and 41 percent opposed. In Worcester, where the resort area business community has fiercely opposed slots for years, the results paralleled the state numbers although not quite as pronounced with 55 percent of the county’s electorate voting for Question 2 and 45 percent voting against.

Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (OCHMRA) Executive Director Susan Jones, who has been candid about her association’s opposition to slots from the beginning, said this week the outcome locally and across Maryland only reinforces the local business community’s mission.

“We’ve got to accept the decision of the voters and move on,” she said. “We have to do our best to make sure we continue to present Ocean City as a family resort and market it that way. We’ve always been proactive in protecting our tourism industry.”

While the OCHMRA and the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce have not been shy about their opposition to slots anywhere in Maryland, and particularly not in Worcester County where the venue will likely be the Ocean Downs racetrack, clearly not all of their members held the same opinion as evidenced by the results. For example, the owners of the Steer Inn on Route 589 practically in the shadow of Ocean Downs were happy with the outcome on the slots issue.

“We’re excited,” said Steer Inn owner Tracy McGarry. “We’re happy because this will create jobs, it will create an opportunity for Racetrack Road to be improved, and it will lead to in influx of much-needed tax dollars. On top of that, it might just provide some work for the local construction guys as they get ready to build this thing.”

Slots carried the day in every jurisdiction in Maryland on Tuesday including the four counties and Baltimore City where the venues are proposed. In the months leading up to the referendum, opponents claimed it was unfair a simple majority of the state’s electorate would decide the issue with no consideration given to jurisdictions where the venues are proposed, but on Tuesday, the argument failed to pass muster as voters in each of the jurisdictions where the sites are proposed jumped on the slots bandwagon.

Of the 18 precincts in Worcester, all but one voted in favor of slots. Among those who voted at Ocean City Elementary School, 648 voted against slots while 557 voted for the gaming machines. It’s interesting to note most of the Ocean City business leaders opposed to slots actually live in West Ocean City and likely prevented a clean sweep for slots in Worcester County. Coincidentally, of those who voted at the Convention Center in Ocean City, 1,824 were in favor of slots, while 1,600 opposed.

Voters in Ocean Pines figured to have a huge say in the issue locally, given the community’s close proximity to Ocean Downs, but residents there also voted in favor of slots. The closest precinct was the Ocean Pines Library, where just two votes separated the pro side from the anti side at 685 to 683.

The “not in my backyard” argument didn’t hold up well in any of the jurisdictions where slots are proposed as voters in each of the jurisdictions followed the statewide trend and even surpassed it in some cases. For example, 65 percent of the voters in Cecil County voted for slots, while 63 percent in Allegany followed suit. In Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County, 59 percent of the voters hit “yes” on Question 2, mirroring the state totals.

With the passage of the referendum on Tuesday, state and local officials are already moving forward with the implementation process. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and his administration are currently forming a task force to oversee the implementation and the Worcester County Commissioners sent a letter to the governor’s office claiming they are preparing to form their own task force to study the issue locally.

“In light of the recent passage of the constitutional amendment authorizing video lottery terminals (slot machines) in several Maryland locations including the Ocean Downs Racetrack in Worcester County, the Worcester County Commissioners unanimously agreed to form the Worcester County Slots Work Group,” the letter dated Wednesday reads. “This work group will consist of key political and business leaders within the county to assist you in implementing this legislation in Worcester County.”

In the months leading up to the referendum, there was speculation the County Commissioners could block slots at Ocean Downs through a rezoning of the property, but with a clear mandate from Worcester’s electorate, that will not likely be pursued. In the letter to the governor, the commissioners asked the administration to “advise how we may assist you in preparing for the development of the Ocean Downs racetrack as a video lottery terminal.”

With passage of the referendum, another significant step in the process will be the bidding for venues in the proposed locations. Less than 24 hours after the referendum’s passage, Baltimore City officials approved a $4.1 million purchase of land earmarked in the city for a slots venue. It has been a foregone conclusion Ocean Downs owner William Rickman, Jr. will bid on the site in Worcester County. Rickman could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Those on both sides of the issue continue to come to terms with the results on Tuesday. For example, Jones said she was taken aback by just how unbalanced the vote turned out to be.

“I wasn’t so surprised at the outcome as I was with the fact that every single county in Maryland voted in favor of slots,” she said. “But the way the bill was sold by the pro side and the way it was written, it’s really no surprise that it passed. The economy was the biggest issue for people voting on slots and everything else in this election.”

One of the biggest concerns about the proposed slots venue in Worcester County is its potential to siphon away dollars that would typically go to traditional tourism-related interests in the resort area. The bill does include stringent language about the types and amounts of food and drink discounts the casinos can offer as well as language prohibiting an on-site hotel or lodging facility. Jones said the resort business community would likely insist those elements of the legislation be followed closely.

“Our challenge now is to keep a watchful eye on this as it plays out,” she said. “There are safeguards built into the bill that prevent too many food and drink giveaways and room comps and we have to make sure that is adhered to.”

However, McGarry suggested the resort area business community could come around to the idea of slots in the area and the potential expansion of the customer base they could provide.

“I think we’ll eventually see the hotels and restaurants in Ocean City embrace slots,” she said. “There will be big bus groups coming in and there will be some opportunities to create packages. I think they’ll realize slots will bring people to the area that might not come otherwise, especially during a dreary week in November like this week.”

State Comptroller Peter Franchot, who became perhaps the most visible and vocal slots opponent in the months leading up to the referendum, said the anti-slots side is preparing for the post-referendum reality.

“Today, we begin a new day,” he said. “Local communities all across Maryland will begin to wrestle with this issue anew, deciding whether to change their planning and zoning laws to allow slot machine casinos. And in Annapolis, we will continue the hard work of getting our state’s finances in order. The reality is that the task of balancing our state budget and meeting our critical needs has been made that much harder because so much as been promised to so many. People have been told that they can get something for nothing, and we all know that is not the case.”