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Massive ad spending for casinos will likely have little local effect

ZACK HOOPES ¦ Staff Writer

(Oct. 12, 2012) In an almost impossible to-miss proof of Sayre’s Law –the intensity of the debate rises in inverse proportion to what’s at stake – Marylanders have been seemingly inundated this season by ads either for or against the upcoming referendum on the state’s gambling expansion.

But at least in the case of Worcester County, the bark may not match the bite. The fight over question 7, as the issue will appear on this November’s ballot, seems to be so intense precisely because the stakes, at least for citizens of the Eastern Shore, seem to be so low.

A close look at any of the advertisements for or against the ballot question reveals that each side is funded by a political organization whose funding comes largely from heavyweights of the casino industry who have an interest in seeing, or not seeing, the measure pass.

The proposed gaming expansion would allow table games, such as blackjack and poker, at the state’s casinos. Currently, only “video lottery” facilities, consisting mainly of electronic slot machines and horse betting, are allowed.

The expansion would also authorize a sixth casino in Prince George’s County. The state already has five sanctioned gambling locations, of which Berlin’s Ocean Downs racetrack is one.

According to financial reports obtained by the Washington Post, anti-gaming advertisements are funded through $21.6 million from Penn National Gaming, whose casinos in West Virginia and Pennsylvania stand to lose business from Maryland. By the same token, a group of potential operators of the proposed sixth casino have given $19.1 towards advertising in support of the initiative.

When asked if Ocean Downs had contributed to either campaign, or if the casino believed the outcome of the referendum would have as significant an impact on Worcester County as it would elsewhere in the state, the casino declined to comment, according to Doug Eppler, a representative from Tipton Communications, Ocean Downs’ public relations agent.

However, the change that will most likely have the biggest impact on the area is already a done deal. Regardless of whether or not the table games and sixth facility are approved, the state has already gone ahead with changes to the restrictions on Ocean Downs’ entertainment offerings.

Whereas the previous gaming authorization restricted the casino’s offerings to certain fireworks and “a piano played by one person,” and bans the “playing of live music, floor shows, dancing, dancing ex- hibitions, performances or any other form of live entertainment in or near the video lottery facility,” the new bill lifts these prohibitions.

But even that may not be as big of a deal as some resort businesses have feared.

“The way we see it, we’d like that entertainment to compliment what’s going on in Ocean City,” said Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melanie Pursel when the bill was first passed in August.

“We’re looking at this as more of a destination effort as to how to draw more people to the region, not just the casino per se,” Pursel said. “I don’t see it becoming a big, flashy casino. I think they’re comfortable. They know their market, and like any business, they’ll start small and respond to the demand they get.”

Proponents of the expansion have also cited the potential increase in revenue for the state’s Education Trust Fund, which is supplied through the state’s cut of gambling revenues.

In the case of Ocean Downs, the state keeps 67 percent of the facility’s earnings, although this will come down to 57 percent in July of 2013, as long as the casino has less than 1,000 slot machines and commits 2.5 percent of its profits to redevelopment.

The MGM-backed Maryland Jobs and Schools lobby group has claimed that $199 million will be created for schools each year, although the math has been widely disputed.

Like the sixth casino, however, the veracity of these claims is somewhat of a moot point, since Annapolis still ultimately decides how much money goes where. Due to Worcester being considered a “rich” district in terms of school tax revenues — itself largely due to Ocean City’s high property values — local schools see very little money from the state anyway.

“To date, Worcester County Public Schools has not directly received any funds generated from gambling,” said county schools Chief Financial Officer Vince Tolbert.

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