Ocean Downs Scores State’s First Slots License

ANNAPOLIS – Ending a years-long political battle over the potential for slot machine gambling in Worcester County, the Maryland Video Lottery Location Commission on Wednesday afternoon unanimously voted to award Ocean Downs the first slots license in the state, with as many as 600 machines in a temporary configuration planned at the track near Berlin as early as next spring.

The commission voted to approve track owner William Rickman, Jr.’s application for one of five slots licenses in the state after carefully reviewing the applicant’s business plan and background check. Ironically, Wednesday’s approval makes Ocean Downs in Worcester County the first approved slots facility in the state, despite some of the fiercest opposition to the gaming machines coming from the resort area over the long battle over slots.

“We are very pleased to win approval,” Rickman said. “We thank the state of Maryland, the Maryland Lottery Office, the Maryland Video Lottery Facility Location Commission, the residents of the state and everyone who has been involved in the slots effort for making this day possible.”

While many of the other proposed slots venues across the state are mired in legal battles and red tape, the Ocean Downs application was comparatively straight forward with a plan to start slow with 800 machines initially with the possibility of expanding to as many as 1,500 in the future. Rickman said this week his company, Ocean Enterprise 589, would immediately move forward with plans to convert Ocean Downs’ existing 34,000 square-foot grandstand into a gaming area.

The new casino is expected to be completed by Memorial Day 2010 and will initially house up to 600 slot machines. The remaining 200 approved machines will be added within one year of the casino’s opening.

Rickman, who owns racetracks and gaming operations in Delaware, said the approval for slots at Ocean Downs could help promote the region as a gaming destination.

“With the approval, I believe this ushers in a new era of mid-Atlantic cooperation,” he said.

Rickman said approximately 265 employees will be needed to staff his slots operation at Ocean Downs in the short term, with hiring for management positions expected to begin later this year. He added the approval for slots at Ocean Downs will add jobs in the area at a time when they are needed the most and will benefit both the residents of Maryland and the state’s horse racing industry.

“We expect that most of our team members, and many of our customers, will be from the local vicinity – Worcester County, Ocean City and Ocean Pines,” he said.

While Rickman and Ocean Enterprise 589 are now off and running with slots, the same cannot be said of the other five states approved for the gaming machines in the November referendum, each of which has their own set of problems. The next venue likely to be approved is in Cecil County, which could be awarded the second slots license in the state as soon as the end of October.

Delegate James Mathias, who has been at the forefront of the debate, first as mayor of Ocean City and most recently as Worcester County’s representative in the House, has seen the slots issue evolve over the years.

“The whole notion of slot machines and gambling created a lot of angst, not only in Ocean City and Worcester County, but all over the state,” he said. “This is an issue that has been fiercely debated for decades, not just the last two or three or 10 years.”

After years of fierce opposition to slots in Worcester County, and more specifically at Ocean Downs, Mathias’ own position on the gaming machines slowly evolved into a “if you can’t beat them, join them” stance.

“I adopted a stance of consequence management along the way,” he said. “We’re far better off having a heavily regulated slots operation at Ocean Downs than a venue in Cambridge that we have no control over. That’s the reality of where we are today with this approval for Ocean Downs.”

Considering the problems faced by other jurisdictions around the state with their respective bidders, Mathias said Worcester is fortunate to have Rickman at the helm of the county’s approved venue at Ocean Downs.

“We had a responsive bidder who put up the money and has a viable business plan with the experience to do it right and he was approved for a license on Wednesday,” he said. “Now it’s up to us, quite frankly, as a county, a district, the municipalities and all of the other stakeholders in this to work together to make it a success.”

The delegate said yesterday, after all of the hearings, votes, failed bills, rattling of swords and gnashing of teeth, the time has now come to embrace slots and carefully integrate the gaming industry into the local economy.

“This is the course we have chosen,” he said. “This has been ratified by the voters of the state. The citizens of Maryland have spoken and said this is what they want. Now, we need to work together to maximize the benefits and eliminate or at least mitigate any potential adverse impacts.”