Track May Offer Slots This Year

BERLIN – Smaller, but quicker is the plan for slots at Ocean Downs with state approval for a venue at the historic racetrack near Berlin coming as soon as September and the first 200 gaming machines opening for business in a temporary situation as quickly as three months after that.

Maryland Video Lottery Commission members visited Ocean Downs on Wednesday afternoon for their first of several stops on a summer-long tour of potential slots venues across the state. Ocean Downs owner William Rickman, Jr. outlined his initial plans for the commission members and dozens of interested private citizens and the media including an initial plan to put in place 200 slot machines in the existing indoor clubhouse as soon as late this year or early next year with a total of 800 in place in the renovated grandstand further down the road.

Rickman explained his company was prepared to place 200 slot machines in a temporary facility inside the track’s existing clubhouse, currently used primarily for dining and simulcast betting, if Ocean Downs is approved as one of five locations for the gaming machines across the state.

The long-range plan calls for as many as 800 slot machines in the rebuilt grandstand adjacent to the existing clubhouse. The grandstand will essentially be rebuilt using the existing footprint of the building with indoor areas created for the slots venue and the outdoor seating areas preserved for live racing fans.

Rickman acknowledged the turnaround from the anticipated approval by the state as soon as September to the opening of the first 200 machines in the reconfigured clubhouse area is rather quick.

“If we get this, it will be done soon,” he said. “We need to make this a multi-faceted facility. Racing can’t continue to grow and exist without a multi-faceted facility. If you don’t build the purses, you don’t survive.”

Rickman explained the proposed timeline includes 200 machines in the clubhouse as soon as 90 to 120 days after state approval, which could come as soon as September. The plan calls for 400 slot machines in the renovated grandstand as early as May 2010, with 100 added by December 2011 and 100 more put in by April 2011. Eventually, the original 200 slot machines in the clubhouse will be moved to the grandstand area, bringing the total to 800.

The local community was slow to embrace the idea of slots at the track when it was presented at different times over recent years, but voters across the county including the neighboring Ocean Pines community overwhelmingly supported slots in the November referendum. Rickman said he understands the trepidation associated with the gaming machines in the communities for which they are proposed, but he remains hopeful the community will be on board, based on his experiences in the past with other venues.

“You come into a community and they’re leery about what might happen,” he said. “You start slow, you do the right thing and they come around and cooperate with you.”

Much of the local opposition to slots at Ocean Downs came from and continues to come from nearby Ocean City, where business leaders have voiced concerns about the gaming machines siphoning off disposable income for entertainment, dining and lodging. The legislation approved by the voters in November includes built-in safeguards to protect the resort area somewhat including limitations on entertainment, food giveaways and the like.

“Unfortunately at Ocean Downs, we’re very limited on what we can do in terms of entertainment,” said Rickman. “For example, we’re not allowed under the statute to have live music, although we can have one piano player. We can have fireworks, but we’re very limited in terms of what we can do with entertainment.”

The track owner did say he anticipated those rules to be relaxed somewhat when the facility grows to fruition further down the road.

“I believe these restrictions will go by the wayside once we become part of the community,” he said. “There have been concerns about taking business away from Ocean City and the Boardwalk, but we think once we become a viable part of the community, we will help bolster the shoulder seasons over in the resort areas.”

Nonetheless, Rickman did not deny the millions of visitors to Ocean City and the resort areas make up a large part of his target audience.

“Eight million people come to the beach during the season and some of them will be our customers,” he said. “We know that. After that, the market goes out 30, 60, 120 miles, but as the market goes out, you’re competing with everybody else.”

Rickman said the slots venue at the track will draw from all over the region, but tapping the existing market at sites in Delaware could be difficult.

“It will be difficult to draw loyal customers from Harrington and Dover,” he said. “But those customers over on that island over there will be a big audience. There is a big market to the south in Virginia with easy access, and we have a great market on the Eastern Shore in places like Easton and Cambridge and north to Annapolis.”

Limitations on the types of associated attractions at an approved Ocean Downs will make it difficult for the new facility to compete with established venues in neighboring Delaware, but track officials have a plan in place to overcome the shortcomings.

“We’re going to focus on the hospitality side,” said Ocean Downs Chief Operating Officer William Fasy. “That can be a difference for us and we’re going to train our staff like Disney does. We’re going to kill them with kindness, lots of smiles, friendliness, we’ll know their names.”

Ocean Downs was approved for as many as 3,500 slot machines in the bill passed by referendum in November, but like the other venues named in the legislation, track officials are asking for a small fraction of what was approved up front. Rickman said the number of machines could be expanded when the state gets a better handle on the industry.

“I believe once the state understands more of this operation, we’ll be able to go beyond the 800,” he said. “There are a lot of things the state has to learn about this. I’m being completely honest, but this is important for everybody to understand. Everybody thinks it’s plug in and play, but it’s not that simple.”

When asked about the zoning on surrounding properties and the potential for future commercial development, Rickman said he could only speak for his 168-acre tract along Route 589.

“I don’t know about the neighboring properties,” he said. “This property is grandfathered in for racetrack or fairgrounds. I’d rather have commercial zoning, of course, but it works for us as it is currently zoned. Slots are an applicable use inside these buildings.”

A handful of Worcester County Commissioners were on hand, but they had little to offer in terms of the future zoning in the area, only to say it would mirror what the comprehensive plan called for.

“The county is very supportive of this project and we will work very closely with Mr. Rickman,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs. “As far as the zoning in the surrounding area, I can’t speak about specifics because we’re right smack dab in the middle of rezoning the entire county right now.”

Commissioner Linda Busick agreed the zoning in the surrounding areas would adhere to the concepts of the county’s long-range planning.

“The zoning will match the comprehensive plan and much of this area is zoned for agriculture,” she said. “We’re going to try to preserve the character of this area with some commercial and some residential. Route 589 and what it can accommodate is the crucial point here.”

By and large, however, the local elected officials appeared ready to embrace the concept of slots at Ocean Downs. Boggs said the county’s electorate spoke volumes during the referendum and the commissioners would follow the will of the people.

“Eight months ago, Ocean Pines and Worcester County voted in favor of slots,” she said. “Knowing Mr. Rickman’s long experience in the industry, we fully expect him to provide a first-class facility here and we look forward to working with him through the approval process.”

Boggs said she anticipated slots enthusiasts in the community to embrace the new facility at Ocean Downs, if and when it is approved and up and running.

“I expect the facility to be very well received,” she said. “This will be attractive to those who frequent Dover and Harrington. I see a lot of Maryland license plates up there. We can’t fill busses fast enough to get to those venues and I expect those slots players would like to stay right here.”

Ocean Pines Association Board member Ray Unger agreed with the commissioners assessment.

“There are 8,400 homes on the other side of those trees and most I’ve talked to are delighted they won’t have to go out and make a right turn to Delaware to go play slots,” he said. “They’ll be able to take a short right turn to a first-class facility. We’re delighted.”