Maryland City event to block casino draws supporters of Arundel Mills plan
By ALLISON BOURG, Staff Writer: The Maryland Gazette and Capital Gazette Communications, Inc
The fight over slots at Arundel Mills turned ugly Sunday, with proponents of the casino disrupting a petition drive aimed at forcing the issue to a local referendum, witnesses of the confrontation said.
Ray Smallwood, president of the Maryland City Civic Association, said about a dozen people arrived at the Maryland City Volunteer Fire Department where members of the citizens group Stop Slots were collecting signatures.
"They were looking for a fight, and that's all they were there for," he said yesterday.
Smallwood said one woman, who identified herself as an Eastern Shore horse breeder who supports slots at Arundel Mills, threatened to leave a dead horse's head in one volunteer's bed.
A protester said he was a student at Anne Arundel Community College and told slots opponents his tuition is increasing and revenue from slots might help keep costs down.
"I don't know what they think ... It's like they think this is going to make the grass greener," Smallwood said.
Though they were scheduled to be at the fire hall for three hours, the Stop Slots group left after an hour because of the disruption.
Robert Anicelli, president of Stop Slots, said in a statement released yesterday that some signature collectors have reported "po-tential interference" from slots proponents.
We are near our goal of reaching the required number of signatures for placing the mall casino zoning ordinance on the November ballot," Annicelli said. "However, in recent days we have seen an increase in organized activities, which can only be described as attempts to interfere with a successful petition drive."
Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. is planning to build the casino with 4,750 slot machines at the mall. The County Council approved zoning for the casino, called Maryland Live! in December after nine months of debate.
Stop Slots has until Feb. 5 to collect 9,500 signatures, the first hurdle in getting bringing the zoning law to a referendum on the November ballot. Joe Torre, director of the county Board of Elections, said he hasn't heard any complaints from petitioners. He said he has heard reports that some people are circulating pro-slots petitions.
"I think people do that to confuse other people," Torre said. "But I haven't seen any of that."
Smallwood couldn't identify any Cordish representatives who were at the drive.
Cordish managing partner Joe Weinberg said any reports that Cordish employees were at the fire hall are "completely false."
"My understanding was the meeting was sparsely attended and the only person who raised their voice was a horse industry representative who believes the owners of Laurel are driving the industry further into distress via funding of the petition effort," Weinberg wrote in an e-mail.
Zed Smith, vice president of development for Cordish, talked about the petition drive yesterday at a meeting of the West Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce in Gambrills.
He didn't mince words when speaking about the petition drive, and what it could mean if opponents gather enough signatures.
"We're hoping for cold weather, freezing temperatures, sleet ... anything that could make people not want to open their doors and sign a petition," Smith said with a chuckle.
It's been difficult, he said.
"But we believe in a good fight," Smith said. "The petition drive currently underway ... could be a huge delay for the project. And that's a big challenge."
Last week, Cordish submitted its site plans to the county approval, starting the review process it hopes will allow it to start construction later this year and open in 2011.
Smith criticized the Maryland Jockey Club for its part in the petition drive, saying he thought its representatives were being unfair. The company has hired a professional campaign organizer to assist in the drive.
The future of Laurel Park is still up in the air. The company that owns the track, Magna Entertainment Corp., is in bankruptcy proceedings and has put the track up for auction.
Cordish is one of the bidders for the track, but officials have said they have no intention of moving the casino from Arundel Mills to Laurel Park.
County and state officials say the casino could generate up to $400 million in revenue per year for the county, the state's Education Trust Fund and the horse racing industry.
"We still think Arundel Mills is the ideal site," Smith said. "It will be the most productive in the state of Maryland."
Stop Slots volunteers are collecting signatures at the Villages of Dorchester community center, 7551 Dorchester Blvd., Hanover, from 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday.
Copyright © 2010 The Maryland Gazette and Capital Gazette Communications, Inc
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