A 1st step toward poker at Rosecroft

Posted: 8:52 pm Fri, February 26, 2010
By Liz Farmer
Daily Record Business Writer

Maryland’s Senate president has proposed legislation that would legalize poker rooms at Prince George’s County’s struggling harness racing track.

The bill, SB 1035, joins a handful of alternative gaming legislation that has been submitting this year by Maryland lawmakers.

“Unfortunately the state of Maryland is way behind the curve in terms of utilizing the gambling phenomenon to generate revenues compared with other states,” said Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s. “Because of — in my opinion — misguided opinions, it has failed to achieve its full potential.”

Co-sponsored by Sen. Anthony C. Muse, D-Prince George’s, the bill calls for one card games operator license to be issued in the state. The operator must locate the facility within one mile of the intersection of Interstate 95 and Route 414.

Rosecroft Raceway falls within that radius.

Much like the slots legislation that was passed in 2007, the card games bill calls for a voter referendum, which would come in November. Separate legislation would then be required for licensing and regulation.

Rosecroft Raceway was once a vibrant harness racing track but has fallen into obscurity in recent years. Two years ago its owner, Cloverleaf Enterprises Inc., halted live racing at the track because it couldn’t afford to run races anymore. The track was still open as a simulcast betting facility, but last spring a dispute with the state’s thoroughbred race tracks resulted in Rosecroft losing its rights to broadcast and take bets on most thoroughbred races.

Last summer, Cloverleaf declared bankruptcy.

Greenbelt-based developer Mark Vogel has announced he will buy the track for roughly $10 million and is awaiting approval of the sale from a bankruptcy judge.

Vogel has been vocal about bringing poker rooms to the track since he began negotiating for the purchase of Rosecroft last fall. He recently commissioned a feasibility study, and its preliminary findings showed the gaming revenue could total up to $42 million per year for the county and state, and produce up to 1,500 union jobs.

“If we don’t have live racing and we don’t have simulcast, we need something,” Vogel said. “If we want to get back to where we’re racing 100 nights a year, the only way we’re going to get to it is alternative gaming.”

Miller said he has fond memories as a kid of Rosecroft as a vibrant, social venue.

“A lot of people were employed there,” he said. “It’s tragic that this track is closed.”

The legislation comes at a time when progress on slots facilities is stalling in Maryland and surrounding states are moving forward with additional gaming. Only three of Maryland’s five designated sites have been licensed, and the state’s slots licensing commission has said the earliest a Maryland casino could be opened would be this fall.

Over the last several weeks, bills to legalize table games have been introduced both in the House of Delegates and the Senate. They come as Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia work to establish recently approved table games. Pennsylvania expects to have its first table games in operation by mid-summer.

Gerald Evans, an Annapolis lobbyist hired by Vogel, said with all the alternative gaming bills already proposed in Maryland, he believed this one could be amended to include locations in addition to Rosecroft. But he added the harness racing track was the best candidate for a card games facility because of its proximity to Washington and Virginia and its story.

“You [make it stand out] by highlighting the plight of Rosecroft and those 200 jobs that are going down now,” Evans said. “Prince George’s County doesn’t need another empty eyesore — which is what it’ll become if it is not reinvigorated.”

But alternative gaming bills face a formidable figure in House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, who has been an opponent of gambling. His chamber was, for many years, where legislation to legalize slots died.

Busch and Gov. Martin O’Malley recently said they are opposed to focusing on table games when the state has yet to see a slots casino open.

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