New Slots Questions Surface Weeks After Election

BERLIN – With the dust settled somewhat in the weeks after voters across Maryland resoundingly approved a referendum paving the way for slots at five locations across the state including Worcester County, there are still more questions than answers as state and local officials figure out what to do next.

Shortly after state voters approved an amendment to the state’s constitution, authorizing slots at five locations across Maryland including Ocean Downs in Worcester, the County Commissioners sent a letter to Governor Martin O’Malley outlining a plan to form a Worcester County Slots Work Group made up of elected officials and business leaders to help foster the implementation of slots at the proposed location at Ocean Downs. Two weeks later, the commissioners have decided to slow down the process of forming the work group in order to carefully explore the bill and its implications in the county.

Commission President Virgil Shockley said this week the commissioners have put the breaks on forming the work group until county attorney and former commissioner Sonny Bloxom can carefully review the bill in its entirety.

“We were ready to move forward with forming this task force, but we thought it might be a good idea to step back and take a closer look at this law before we proceed,” said Shockley. “It looks like what was first proposed and what actually passed are a little different, and we want to be sure exactly what we’re dealing with before we move forward with forming this work group.”

Commission Vice President Louise Gulyas agreed the time was right to take a step back and explore the bill’s language before moving forward.

“We’re nowhere on that yet,” she said. “It’s just too early. We need to know exactly what was passed and see how and when it will affect us before we move forward. We don’t want to go in there like a bull in a china shop before we know exactly what this all means.”

The legislation includes specific language about the formation of a local development council in each of the jurisdictions where the slots venues are located including the number and make-up of the advisory group. Instead, the slots work group proposed by the commissioners in their letter to the governor would serve as a transition team of sorts to explore local issues until the formal group prescribed by the bill is formed at a later date.

“We’re still going to need a group to help during the transition between the election and implementation phases, which could take a long time,” said Shockley. “What we’re proposing is to form a group that can explore some of these issues now. The more formal group described in the law will come later when slots are up and running.”

While there are no explicit parameters concerning the make-up of the commissioners’ task force on slots, the language in the bill is specific about the make-up of the formal local development council. According to the law, the local management council shall include one senator, two delegates, one representative of the licensee, presumably Ocean Downs, seven residents of the community in close proximity of the slots facility and four representatives of businesses or institutions located in immediate proximity to the facility.

The assumption from the beginning is that the commissioners would be charged with the task of forming the prescribed local development council, but language in the bill explicitly says the task should be shared with Ocean City.

For his part, Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan said this week he expects to be included in the process.

“I certainly think at some point I will sit down with the commissioners and see where we are on forming this group,” he said. “At some point, I anticipate we’ll have some conversation about who should be on this local development council and what their function should be. This is obviously something the town of Ocean City is aware of and we’ll be included in the process.”

The bill calls for as many as 2,500 VLTs at the Berlin track, but a source close to the situation said this week track owner William Rickman might not be seeking the entire 2,500 at least in the beginning. The same source said it is believed Rickman does not intend to build a stand-alone facility at the track, but rather reconfigure and renovate the existing space at the facility to accommodate slots. Rickman could not be reached for comment.

If Ocean Downs does not want the entire allocation of 2,500 VLTs, it remains to be seen if another bidder might step in and ask for the balance. Language in the bill specifically describes an area within one mile of the intersection of Routes 50 and 589, which would appear to limit the opportunity for a different bidder if Rickman does not want the entire 2,500 proposed for Ocean Downs. However, the bill does limit the number of licenses across the state to just six, meaning it would likely be impossible under the law as written for multiple license holders in any of the prescribed areas.

When asked what would happen if Rickman did not bid on his entire allocation of 2,500 machines, Shockley said, “That’s a perfect example of what this group could explore. There are a ton of questions out there, more questions than answers at this point …”