Early Indicators Show Slots Not Causing Traffic Issues

SNOW HILL — Traffic spillover from the slots expansion to Ocean Downs has not been an issue so far, according to the Worcester County Local Development Council (LDC). However, with expansion likely for Ocean Downs, officials agree that the situation will need to be constantly monitored.

“We’re still looking at traffic management studies,” said Ken Cimino, Assistant District Engineer for traffic with the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA). “Kind of hard to come up with a strategy when you haven’t identified the problem yet.”

According to Cimino, however, his agency has not noticed any real surge in traffic in the area since slots were added to Ocean Downs last January.

Months before Ocean Downs was expanded, state and local agencies tried to anticipate and address issues that slots might bring to the communities neighboring the casino.

Of those worries, a boost in traffic that could overwhelm the narrow Route 589 at points was probably the largest. More than six months later, SHA District Engineer Donnie Drewer confirmed that the safeguards put in place at the beginning, including a new stoplight at the entrance to the casino, are doing the job.

“The traffic control system we required the casino to put in place has worked as planned,” said Drewer.

Lt. Earl Starner of the Maryland State Police agreed, telling the assembly that “impact [on traffic] has been minimal, if any” since slots came to Ocean Downs.

Ocean City Mayor and LDC Chair Rick Meehan remarked that he hasn’t heard any complaints from commuters so far, a sentiment echoed by County Attorney Sonny Bloxom, who sat in for the County Commissioners.

While the current measures have been working so far, further expansion in Ocean Downs seems less probable than inevitable. Plans to add a 10-lane bowling alley and a movie theater to the casino have already been drafted, while more slot machines beyond the approximately 800 already in place are a real possibility, though Ocean Downs’ current facility is tight on space.

But it’s the likely inclusion of table games to the casino that officials believe will cause the biggest stir.

“We all knew from the beginning that [expansion of games] would be the next step,” said Meehan.

Though nothing concrete is in place, it’s no secret that table games will probably be added to Ocean Downs sometime in the future. And with that, or any kind of expansion, Drewer said traffic and other conditions will again need to be re-evaluated.

“If they [Ocean Downs] do expand, they’ll have to come back and do it [traffic study] all over again,” Drewer said.

The LDC also briefly revisited plans for what the county and surrounding municipalities will do with their portion of the casino’s revenue. Each month, Ocean City, Ocean Pines, Berlin and Worcester at large receive a percentage of Ocean Downs revenue. It is a condition of the agreement to originally allow the casino to expand. Last August, despite Hurricane Irene shutting down a weekend’s worth of business, Ocean Downs still generated over $13 million in revenue. Of that, Worcester received $205,770.33, with 60 percent going directly to the county, 20 percent to Ocean City, and 10 percent each to Berlin and Ocean Pines.

Berlin Mayor Gee Williams reiterated his town’s policy to allow money to collect for a few years. After sufficient funding has gathered, it will be turned towards building a community center in town and a new police station, facilities Berlin has been looking forward to for a long time, according to Williams.

“Both things have been on the town’s wish list for more than 20 years,” he told the assembly.

Bloxom pointed out that the County Commissioners are planning a similar strategy.

“We’re holding ours and letting it build up,” he said. “We did buy a few new sheriffs’ vehicles [with the revenue].”

Meehan noted that casino revenue is already being used in Ocean City as part of the budget this year to expand the town’s public safety field.

“We’re going to hire five new police officers,” he said.

What Ocean Downs will mean for Worcester in the future was something everyone at the LDC was interested in.

State Senator Jim Mathias expects the casino to grow as time goes on to better fit the public demand.

“There’s still more evolution to come in ‘what is America looking for,’” he said.

According to Mathias, the LDC needs to “envision the future as we go.” Meehan agreed, but wants everyone to be “cautious and careful” when thinking about changes to Ocean Downs.

Williams highlighted the unique benefit the casino could bring to the area, especially during a time when so many other businesses are folding.

“There are very few opportunities now for economic development in the traditional ways,” he said, adding that Ocean Downs has “growth potential.”

Officials are now looking to gather information through surveys as to who is visiting the casino and why.

“My informal survey found there are about as many out-of-state plates as instate,” said engineer and LDC member John Salm.

Delegate Norm Conway (38-B) asked for a more formal survey.

“I think it’s important to have some kind of municipal impact [study],” he remarked. “I think it’s going to be important for us to have some real facts.”

Conway believes that the LDC will be surprised by the results of a survey and finding out who is visiting the casino. The group plans to further collect information, especially from Ocean Pines.

The LDC will meet again on Dec. 19 to discuss what it has learned and what kinds of expansion Ocean Downs may be looking into.