Ocean Downs Will Have Maryland’s First Slot Machines

Posted on September 24, 2009

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It’s official. The first slot machines in Maryland will be at the Ocean Downs harness race track in Worcester County, not far from Ocean City, and near Berlin and Ocean Pines.

Maryland awarded its first slots license this week to William M. Rickman, owner of Ocean Downs, paving the way for 200   600  slot machines to be open for business at Ocean Downs by Memorial Day, 2010.

Rickman’s plans reportedly call for gradually increasing the number of slot machines at Ocean Downs to 800 or possibly as many as 1,500 over a period of years, but nowhere near the 2,500 authorized by state voters in a 2008 referendum. Rickman also owns a major race track and slots casino in Delaware.

Officials of Worcester County, Ocean City, Berlin and Ocean Pines have resolved most of their disagreements over which jurisdictions should receive the very small local share of the gambling proceeds. No significant state or local impediments stand in the way of the Memorial Day target date for slots.

The greatest impact will be traffic along Route 589, where Ocean Downs is located, just off Route 50. Route 589, a two-lane country road, provides the only access to Ocean Pines.

Rickman is expected to apply for a building permit to renovate the old grandstands space at Ocean Downs to be used for slot machines. Outdoor harness racing would continue, during the summer.

Ocean City brands itself as a “family beach resort,” and is wary of the impact gambling might have on that family image. Ocean City businesses have long opposed gambling, fearing that slot machines would suck up a large portion of vacationers’ money, leaving less to be spent in restaurants and on the Boardwalk.

Local opposition has faded somewhat. The small number of slot machines planned at the outset might  not significantly affect the Ocean City economy. But if the number balloons past 800 in the future, businesses may become more concerned.

Stand by for more on the uncertain status of other potential casino locations in Maryland.

It is ironic that the first slots will be at a small country race track, and not at any of the state’s major race tracks that had sought slot machines to “save horse racing.” None of the big tracks is currently even in the running to win a slots license.

— Bernie Hayden

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