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County mentioned as site for slots

July 15, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

Can Washington County gamblers look forward to a "Slots Royale Complex of Hagerstown?" Or is it just a pipe dream?

In some out-of-season speculation, Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, has talked about the Hagerstown area as a possible site for slot machines.

This week, Washington County's mostly Republican delegation to the General Assembly reacted skeptically.

"Slots belong at tracks," Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said Wednesday. "Hagerstown doesn't have any tracks. It's as simple as that."

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said it's odd for Busch to propose a site because his opposition to slots has killed legislation for two straight years.

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"The speaker hasn't even agreed to a slot bill, much less a location. ... This is Mike Busch's latest obstructionist game," Shank said.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, a Republican, made legalizing slot machines a priority when he ran for governor in 2002. In his first two legislative sessions, bills passed in the Senate and failed in the House.

The debate, though, remains - and may have intensified a week ago, when Pennsylvania's legislature approved 61,000 slot machines there.

Charles Town Races & Slots in Jefferson County, W.Va., draws gamblers from several states to play more than 3,500 slot machines.

Delaware has slots. Washington, D.C., has talked about it.

Busch told The Herald-Mail on Tuesday that it makes sense - if Maryland were to approve slots - to put an establishment near the intersection of Interstates 81 and 70, to stem the flow of gambling traffic out of state.

Slot machine proposals initially focused on Maryland's horse-racing tracks. Then, non-track sites were considered.

At one time, the closest proposed location was Allegany County, Md. Last year, Frederick County, Md., was mentioned.

Now, it's Washington County's turn.

"We have no marketing study. We would do that first before there are serious deliberations," Busch said during a telephone interview.

But, he continued, "You can't write off Hagerstown and Washington County if the purpose is to keep Maryland money in Maryland. Hagerstown becomes an avenue that has to be seriously considered."

At the same time, Busch reiterated his general opposition to slot machines.

"I'm not a proponent because I think it's a race to the bottom," he said.

Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said the governor hadn't heard Busch's latest slot location idea.

"It's highly premature for the speaker to be discussing locations when he hasn't allowed slots to reach the Senate floor," she said.

Slots advocates launched similar barbs at Busch.

"I'd be more interested in Speaker Busch's attempted real estate speculation if he would have allowed a bill to come to a vote anytime in the last two years," said Del. Richard B. Weldon, Jr., R-Frederick/Washington.

Busch is trying to "peel off" Republican slots supporters who might cave in if their area is included in a plan, Weldon said.

Sen. John J. Hafer, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington, agreed that Busch has hindered progress on slots.

Hafer said he'd rather see slots limited to racetracks, but he's open to other possibilities.

Washington County might be a good Western Maryland spot, he said.

"If it makes sense, I'll support whatever it is," Hafer said.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Allegany/Washington, who opposes slots, also lit into Busch.

"As a speaker, he doesn't have a plan. ... It's just another trial balloon," Myers said.

If slots do pass, U.S. 340 south of Frederick is a better place to intercept people bound for Charles Town, Myers said.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, said he remains opposed to legalizing slot machines, regardless of Busch's latest comments.

Del. John P. Donoghue, the Washington County Delegation's only Democrat, didn't take a position on Busch's idea.

"It's too early. ... I haven't heard any details," Donoghue said.

Officials at the county level had mixed opinions.

Washington County Commissioner John C. Munson, a Republican, said he's not opposed to slots in the Hagerstown area, but he's concerned about their potential effect.

"Some people don't know when to stop, and they end up with no food. ... At the same time, I think it could be a good income to the state," he said.

"It might be our answer to downtown revitalization," said Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell, a Republican. "Who knows?"

He added that he is not opposed to legalizing slots in Maryland.

Commissioner Doris J. Nipps, a Republican, said slots are a good fit for racetracks, but not elsewhere.

"We've already got tip jars, which is enough for us," she said.

- Staff writer Tara Reilly contributed to this story.

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