Delegate Eyes Mediator Role In Slots Tension

BERLIN – With most of the communities likely to be impacted by the arrival of slots in Worcester County already jockeying for their slice of the pie, tensions are growing before a plan has been announced and it will likely fall on the local delegation in Annapolis to sort out the mess.

Two months after voters across Maryland and in Worcester approved slots in a statewide referendum, how to allocate the potential spoils is already driving a wedge between the county and its communities likely to be impacted by the arrival of the gaming machines. As passed, the law breaks down the revenue distribution with 70 percent earmarked for Worcester County, 20 percent for Ocean City and 10 percent for Berlin. Slots will likely affect Ocean Pines the most, but as an unincorporated entity, it has not been singled out for a cut of the anticipated revenue.

Two weeks ago, Worcester officials expressed a desire to have all of the local impact allocation funneled through the county, which would allocate the money to the local jurisdictions based on need. The funds would be spent in accordance with a multi-year development plan the county will eventually pass based on the recommendations of the local development council.

One week later, Ocean Pines and Berlin officials cried foul, with each community firing off letters to state delegates and senators urging them to look out for their respective interests. The Ocean Pines letter asks for all slots revenue to be channeled to the county as opposed to the current plan spelled out in the bill, which includes separate allocations for the towns of Ocean City and Berlin. Ocean Pines officials prefer the revenue be allocated to the county, which would then dole it out to the affected communities in much the same way unencumbered grants for public safety and other impacts are distributed by the county to the towns and Ocean Pines during the annual budget process.

The Ocean Pines letter released last week asks the lower shore delegation to “reconsider the present allocation of funds to reflect the true impact of slots, which will fall on Worcester’s largest residential community, and on smaller communities located on Racetrack Road.”

Meanwhile, Berlin officials wrote their own letter to the shore delegation, urging them to stay the course with the money allocated as spelled out in the current bill. The letter, penned by Mayor Gee Williams, goes on to say changing the allocation process now could force the towns to go to the county with hat in hand to beg for a share of the slots impact money.

“Berlin and Ocean City are certainly capable of defining and responding to the respective needs of our communities without entering an annual budgetary bidding process with the commissioners,” Williams wrote.

As a recipient of the letters, Delegate Jim Mathias knows the growing concern in the county over the slots revenue first hand.

“There is significant tension growing in the community already about the allocation of the slots revenue,” he said. “The trick is going to be working through this thing to the satisfaction of everybody. Ocean Pines and Berlin have already voiced deep concern, and we know how Ocean City feels.”

The delegate said he would work toward an amenable solution for everybody without driving a wedge between the feuding parties.

“The challenge will be to alleviate this tension in an effective, responsible way,” he said. “The bottom line is, we need to find a way to work through all this tension and not let it polarize the county.”

Mathias said he recommended the county and its communities go to the source for advice on how to handle the expected impacts. He suggested a meeting with Ocean Downs owner William Rickman, Jr., during which potential impacts could be addressed.

“My advice is to invite Mr. Rickman down to address all of the concerned parties,” he said. “He already has a slots operation in Delaware Park and he could give everybody a general sense of what the impacts might be. If anybody knows what kind of traffic or other impacts this could create, he would. We should start to anticipate what might happen and build a pro forma model based on expected traffic counts, increased fire and police calls and other impacts and start to make a plan.”

While it has been expected all along Worcester County’s slots venue would be located at Ocean Downs, there is no guarantee the track will be the location. The bill specifies a location in Worcester County within one mile of the intersection of Routes 50 and 589, which makes Ocean Downs the logical choice, but another potential player could emerge when the bids for the venues come due on Feb. 1.

There is an undeveloped 72-acre tract on the south side of Route 50 across from Route 589 owned by Ocean City Partners LLC, whose parent company is Cordish Companies, a vast development firm with shopping, entertainment and casino projects all over the country. Cordish officials have not been shy about their intention to make a bid for one or more of the slots venues in Maryland and its property on Route 50 meets the requirements spelled out in the state’s slots bill.