OCEAN CITY – Though Question 2 has been given a definitive answer by Maryland voters, there are still many questions begging to be answered.
Even though it’s estimated that the first jingle-jangle of a slot machine won’t be heard at Ocean Downs until 2011, many people in Ocean City are left wondering what “ripple effects” the Nov. 4 vote that overwhelmingly approved video lottery terminals in the state will create.
One of the biggest concerns during the campaign, especially amongst opponents of legalizing slots, was the potential passing in Maryland would cause Delaware to consider taking the next stage of legalized gambling and allowing table games and sports betting. One Ocean City resident called slots “the gateway drug to the harder narcotic of sports betting and table games.” The Maryland United to Stop Slots campaign also seemed to favor the drug analogies as well calling slots the “crack cocaine of gambling.”
Currently, only slots are allowed in Delaware, but the “First State” is one of four states (Nevada, Oregon, and New Jersey are the others) that are omitted from a 1992 federal bill that outlaws sports betting. Only Nevada casinos operate legalized race and sports books.
Delaware Governor-Elect Jack Markell has said that he “would be open to the possibility of sports betting and would consider passing it into law.” The Delaware Economic Forecasting Council will be meeting on Nov. 17 to discuss how disturbing fiscal matters in the state and what needs to be done to proverbially stop the bleeding. Some reports say that sports betting could be brought up in the Delaware Legislature as early as January of 2009 and legalizing sports betting would, according to Edward Sutor, President and CEO of Dover Downs, “keep the 35 percent of our visitors that are from Maryland playing in Delaware.”
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan called Delaware’s potential move in the direction of sports betting a “real scenario that was bound to happen in Delaware when slots were approved in Maryland.” Meehan added this scenario: “Now what will happen is a game of badminton, where Maryland gets slots, then Delaware volleys back with sports betting. Eventually, it could get to a point where it’s so over-saturated that no one is getting the projected revenue.”
It’s estimated that the three slots parlors in Delaware generate about $200 million for the state, but the “racinos” have been hit hard by the failing economy thus far. As a result, Maryland’s approval of slots gambling could speed up what some say was Delaware’s inevitable move toward sports betting. The First State lost a reported $35 million in slots revenue when Pennsylvania approved video lottery terminals in 2004. A January 2008 report from Delaware said that permitted sports betting could boost state revenue by $26 million.
Other questions are popping up locally, with some residents wondering if local government will market slots in a “sand, surf, and slots” type ad campaign or if it will turn its back on the situation and continue to market it as primarily a family resort.
Meehan said the City Council “has honestly not discussed it yet, but what I can tell you is that we have a wait-and-see attitude on how the slots issue is going to play out now that it is a reality. Regardless of what happens, and to what level slots become a reality we are going to continue to advertise Ocean City as a desirable place to live and vacation a little more every year.”
Many local businesses were vocal in their disdain for the idea of legalized slots, citing that dollars spent at the Ocean Downs racino would be money not spent in their establishments. In Senate Bill 962, which addresses the rules and regulations for slots in Maryland, the issue is addressed, saying that no free drinks or food will be permitted and that prices of food and drink offered in racinos must be commensurate with prices offered in county restaurants. No one will be permitted to cash their paychecks at the venue, and the number of ATM’s in the racino and the maximum amount of withdrawal will be regulated. Yet, despite the rules and regulations a Grinols 2004 survey said that for every $1,000 spent in a casino, it declined retail and wholesale earnings by $247.
Yet some have argued that the lone Worcester County site at Ocean Downs for slots, even if it’s built into a larger scale casino, won’t impact the town of Ocean City as negatively as once thought, potentially bringing in busloads of new business to the town.
“I don’t think it’s going to have a major impact, but it’s going to have an impact in that it’s all based on disposable income,” Meehan said. “I don’t see slots bringing in people in large droves, as there will be four other locations throughout Maryland and people can still go to the neighboring states that allow it. Why would they come here?”
What worries Meehan the most is the feeling that some vacationers may get as they pass by a casino on their way into town.
“When you cross that bridge, you are coming into another world. Our world gives people a sigh of relief and a more relaxed way of living. Having a big casino at the gateway of the biggest residential area in Worcester County isn’t exactly staying true to what Ocean City has offered its visitors. But, it’s a reality, and something that we as a town are going to have to mitigate one way or another,” he said.