Expanded Casino A Concern For Some

OCEAN CITY – Less than 24 hours after the Casino at Ocean Downs opened on Tuesday, some resort area business leaders and elected officials were already casting a wary eye toward the new slots facility.

The Casino at Ocean Downs opened to big crowds on Tuesday afternoon after a ribbon-cutting ceremony and speeches by state and local elected officials, but resort business leaders on Wednesday expressed concern the new slots facility might someday exceed its limitations.

For years, Ocean City and the tourism-based economy in the resort area fiercely resisted the opening of a casino just inland in Worcester. It wasn’t until certain concessions were made, a buffer of sorts that would prohibit the slots facility from encroaching on the traditional resort businesses, that the county and Ocean City officials started to embrace the concept.

Fears of free food and drink giveaways and complimentary hotel rooms were allayed somewhat by language written into the legislation specifically for the Worcester County project in order to gain the support of the county’s electorate during the 2008 referendum.

“Within a 10-mile radius of the facility, the video lottery operation licensee may not build public accommodations, for example a hotel, a convention or conference center, no amusement rides,” the bill reads. “Moreover, dancing, live music and live entertainment are not allowed.”

On Tuesday, Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller praised Ocean Downs owner William Rickman, Jr. for creating a successful operation while faced with limitations not encountered by the other potential slots sites around the state.

“Mr. Rickman overcame every possible obstacle to make this happen and he did it with his hands tied behind his back,” Miller said on Tuesday. “No drinks, no food, no giveaways, one piano – we had to get those concessions and they became challenges to overcome and persevere.”

On Wednesday, however, Ocean City Economic Development Committee (EDC) members and some elected officials voiced concern the new casino could become something it wasn’t intended to become in the future, particularly with increased pressure from established casinos in neighboring states.

“If you were there yesterday, you heard Mike Miller go down a long list of everything they aren’t allowed to do, such as no hotel on site and no restaurants,” said Delegate-elect Mike McDermott (D-38B). “How long will it be before they start talking about altering that agreement? The camel’s head was under the tent and it was speaking loudly yesterday.”

McDermott told EDC members the lure of revenue streaming in from the new casino might cause state officials to look to expand what is offered at the Berlin facility.

“I saw the bells and whistles taking a lot of money from a lot of people,” he said. “You need to be so doggone vigilant on that thing.”

EDC Chairman Michael James, managing partner at the Carousel Hotel in Ocean City, agreed, saying there has already been talk of expanding the operation at Ocean Downs as neighboring facilities in Delaware, for example, continue to up the ante.

“They’re already sending the signal,” he said. “Already, you’re hearing about adding table games and that’s just the start.”

James said state lawmakers might attempt to alter the language of the bill slowly in a way almost imperceptible to many in the area.

“This will be done very quietly at first,” he said. “They cut a deal and that’s how it passed. They said it was an education bill.”

Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melanie Pursel agreed the new casino warranted careful inspection.

“Within minutes, all of the machines were full and we have to be very mindful of that,” she said. “If it stays the way it is, that’s a good thing, but we all realize that probably isn’t going to happen.”