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Committee hears slots pitch

November 06, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

LITTLE ORLEANS, MD - William Rickman Jr. tried to convince state lawmakers Wednesday to legalize slot machines at all of the state's racetracks, including one he wants to develop west of the Washington County line.

Rickman said the rural horse track could not survive if the state bypassed it in favor of putting slots at a nearby location such as Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort, which is one idea that's been floated during the gambling debate.

Rickman, of Potomac, Md., spoke to members of the House Ways and Means Committee, who gathered under a tent in the vacant field where the track is to be built just off Interstate 68 near Little Orleans in Allegany County.

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The committee killed legislation earlier this year that would have allowed slots at four racetracks, including the proposed track.

But this summer and fall the committee has crisscrossed the state, touring possible slots sites and taking public comment on the issue.

In December, the committee will decide whether to pursue slots legislation during the upcoming session in January, said Chairwoman Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery.

All the state's tracks, which have been struggling financially, need the boost that slot machine revenue would provide, Rickman said.

He estimated that the Allegany County track alone would generate at least $100 million in slots revenue, which would be split between the state, the track owners, the horsemen and the local communities.

"We are looking, as owners, as maybe greedy grabby, but the reality of this is survival," he said. "Slots are high-octane immediate gratification."

Rickman said local governments should have the final say on whether slots come to their jurisdiction, but he doesn't support a voter referendum.

"You end up with neighbor against neighbor. You start the fight all over again," he said.

A majority of elected officials and business leaders in Allegany County support the racetrack and slots.

The Allegany track would create 150 jobs without slots but more than 500 with them, he said.

If the state doesn't legalize slots, Rickman said he still would build the mile-long track. Financially, it could succeed through year-round simulcast betting and the boost of three off-track betting parlors in other parts of the state.

Live racing would be held during 21 days when the state's other tracks are dark.

Rickman argued that slots at the track would help Rocky Gap, which would be the closest hotel to the track. Rocky Gap has been losing about $4 million a year that the state has had to subsidize, said Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington.

The Allegany County track would compete with Charles Town Races & Slots in West Virginia, which takes in about $200 million a year in gambling revenue, he said.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Allegany/Washington, who was elected last year on a no-slots platform, questioned Rickman's plan.

"Why Little Orleans? Why Allegany County?" he asked.

Legislation that expanded horseracing required the track to be located in Allegany County, Rickman said.

Rickman said he chose the Little Orleans site for its location and relatively flat topography.

"It's logical. It's at the extreme end of the state. It helps compete with Charles Town. It keeps that money home," he said.

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