Local officials from Cecil to Prince George's counties had mixed reactions yesterday to a proposal by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to build two slot machine palaces along Interstate 95, expressing confusion as to where to place the facilities and skepticism until they see particulars of the plan.
"Maybe they're just testing the waters. How are we local elected officials supposed to support this when we have no idea what they're talking about?" Howard County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, said, referring to Ehrlich and Annapolis lawmakers.
Further confusing the debate, a report by a key House committee urges "strong consideration" of five to six state-owned "destination-style gaming locations" for slots halls at sites around the state, with approval, widening the potential radius for placement of non-racetrack slots.
Under Ehrlich's plan, four Maryland racetracks would get 11,500 slot machines, the same as in a bill approved by the Senate last year. But in a new twist, the proposal also calls for building two non-racetrack facilities in jurisdictions bisected by I-95. A total of 4,000 machines would be placed in the two gambling dens to be built at unspecified locations in Baltimore City or Baltimore, Cecil, Harford, Howard or Prince George's counties.
The sites would be selected by a panel controlled by the governor that would choose from bidders who offer the highest return to the state, and would also consider promised job creation, road improvements and minority participation.
But the potential for non-racetrack slots locations caused some local officials to reiterate their opposition to such venues.
"If there are to be slots, the mayor would only support them at existing racetracks," said Raquel Guillory, spokeswoman for Mayor Martin O'Malley. "If it's going to happen [in the city], it would be Pimlico, and only if there is some investment in the surrounding neighborhood." While some lawmakers have suggested slots at the Inner Harbor, O'Malley remains opposed to such an idea, she said.
If slots were approved for Maryland racetracks, Howard County would have Laurel Park, on the Anne Arundel/Howard border as one location. But county officials were surprised, and skeptical that another location in the county could be chosen along its portion of I-95.
"How large will it be, and the number of people? Right now county governments can't absorb any more impact on our finances," Robey said of Howard County.
Although Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. has objected to allowing slot machines at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium or on an undeveloped industrial site east of I-95 near White Marsh, he does not object to allowing slots elsewhere in Baltimore County, his spokeswoman, Renee Samuels said.
Nelson K. Bolender, president of the Cecil County Board of Commissioners, said the only spot he could think of in his county for a non-racetrack facility is an off-track betting parlor in North East, which could bring in gamblers from Delaware and Pennsylvania. But he said the county would likely not welcome a separate casino.
Del. Bennett Bozman, a ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said Cambridge is the only site on the Eastern Shore that he could support for slot machines, a move some say would complement the off-track betting parlor Ocean Downs owner William J. Rickman Jr. built in a largely vacant shopping center along U.S. 50 two years ago.
"It's the only place on the Shore, maybe the only place in the state, where the infrastructure is all in place," said Bozman, a Worcester County Democrat.
Business and political leaders in Cambridge say they will withhold judgment until they see more from the General Assembly. Chamber of Commerce board members are set to discuss the issue at a meeting tonight.
Rep. Albert Wynn, a Democrat who represents the 4th District, said Ehrlich's plan has broadened the discussion, opening up opportunities for projects such as the National Harbor on the Potomac River near Oxon Hill.
Meanwhile, a judge yesterday clouded the ownership picture of a site identified by Ehrlich for a track-based slots emporium. The judge ruled that Indiana-based Centaur Inc. could pursue legal claims in that state against Rosecroft Raceway owners for ending their partnership.
Ehrlich's bill recommended the harness racing track -- which gambling experts consider potentially the most lucrative site in Maryland for a racetrack casino -- as one of the sites for a slots emporium.
The Associated Press and Sun staff writers Andrew A. Green, Larry Carson, Ted Shelsby and Greg Garland contributed to this article.