Maryland Horse Council president Steuart Pittman testified at the Anne Arundel County Council hearing, Monday, December 7 against the proposed slots casino near the Arundel Mills mall, and he has kindly provided The Equiery readers with the following report:
The Anne Arundel County hearing on slots last night was a sea of mostly red shirts with a scattering of green shirts. The casino developers had held a jobs fair to get names of unemployed people who might be convinced to show up at hearings like this one. They wore green shirts. Red shirts were worn both by horsemen and the residents who live near Arundel Mills. 250 arrived on busses from Laurel Park. It was a long night for those hard working folks who rise at 3 am ever day.
County Executive Leopold is an avid supporter of the Cordish plan at Arundel Mills. His representative, Allan Friedman, was given unlimited time to make a very thorough and convincing argument for approval of that plan. At that point things were looking grim. I was out in the lobby still and signed up as #60 on the speaker list. I considered going home.
As Mr. Friedman left the hearing room I decided that one should know thy opposition, and I congratulated him on his presentation. He is a damn smart guy who I’d hire as a lawyer any day. I explained the MD Horse Council position in support of giving Laurel’s future ownership a crack at the slots license, and he decided to introduce me to Mr. Cordish, who had just exited the chambers. Cordish assured me that nobody could get approval and be up and running at Laurel as fast as he could at Arundel Mills, and that the Arundel Mills site was the best spot in the country for a casino. I suggested he consider buying Laurel Racetrack.
By the time I testified things were looking better. Councilmembers Vitale and Jones had both shown sympathy for the plight of Laurel and its workers. Countless trainers, backstretch workers, and residents had argued that Laurel Park is where slots belongs and that if they go to Arundel Mills Maryland racing would die. Coucilmember Dillon had expressed support for Arundel Mills, and Benoit opposes any gambling licenses anywhere. Middlebrooks has recused himself, and there is a vacancy on the council that will be filled by mid-December. The wild card was the new council appointee in my south-county district, Tricia Johnson. I spoke to her on the phone earlier in the day and she confirmed that lots of horse people were calling her, but wasn’t decided on her vote. She unfortunately spent her evening in the emergency room at the hospital, and we don’t have details. We hope she’s OK and that the pressure didn’t get to her.
My brief testimony simply argued that the council had heard only from Cordish because of the timing of the Jockey Club parent company’s financial collapse. With bids for new track ownership due this Friday and the auction scheduled for early January it would be irresponsible of the council to shut the door on a forthcoming proposal for slots at Laurel. Despite threats to council members that it’s Arundel Mills or nothing, Lottery Commission Chairman Fry has stated in the Daily Record that denial of zoning to Cordish would force them to reopen bids for the Anne Arundel County license. That’s where Laurel’s new owners could come in with a plan and compete against the Cordish plan. Then the council could decide which plan best serves the interests of county residents.
Vitale and Jones both confirmed that the hearing had strengthened their belief that slots belong at Laurel. We hope that Johnson hears that message as well, and that the new appointee in District 6 will listen to more than just the powerful developer of the day. That would be the four votes that we need.
Stay tuned. The Maryland Horse Council will continue working on this with our friends and members in the racing industry. Next steps are to feed talking points, fact sheets, letters, calls, and maybe even a visit to Laurel in the direction of the County Council members.