Slots Open For Business At Ocean Downs on Rt. 589

Posted on December 14, 2010


Black billboard with gold lettering, at the intersection of Rt. 50 and Rt. 589, announces casino gambling at Ocean Downs.

After many delays, the era of slot machine gambling is about to begin at Ocean Downs. The grand opening is scheduled for Jan. 4, barring last-minute hitches. The new casino needs a final certificate from Maryland state gambling officials, and that is expected if all goes smoothly at a Dec. 29 pre-opening dress rehearsal.

Ocean Downs is a small rural track that’s held summer harness racing for more than 60 years. It is one of five locations approved by  voters for slot machine gambling in Maryland. The racetrack-casino is located about a half-mile off Rt. 50 and five miles west of the beach resort of Ocean City, Maryland.

Workers are finishing up the interior and parking lot of the casino pictured above. From the outside it looks like a new public high school.

Ocean Downs will have about 700 computerized slot machines when it opens in January, fewer than half the number authorized by voters. Another 50 machines are expected to be added in 2011, based on the preferences of casino customers. William Rickman, owner of Ocean Downs, as well as competing casinos in Delaware, decided that the present economy would support only about 800 slot machines.

The Ocean Downs casino could have a major impact on the Ocean City resort community. Or not.

The Ocean City business community has long opposed gambling, on the theory that slots would drain tourists’ limited discretionary spending away from restaurants, hotels, and the Boardwalk. On the other hand, the casino might provide the resort with an additional attraction that keeps tourists coming back, and in larger numbers. The OC Hotel, Motel and Restaurant Association and the town government will do considerable soul-searching in 2011 regarding the right strategy for resort businesses in the new era of gambling.

While 700 slot machines alone might not hurt Ocean City’s family image, how long will it be before gambling tries to expand? Other nearby states are already moving to add table games to their slots casinos in the competition for gambling customers. Will Ocean Downs eventually become a much larger gambling facility? How will the state and Worcester County deal with pressure to allow slot machines at other venues, including fraternal organizations?

Residents of Ocean Pines are concerned about increased traffic on Rt. 589. Some in nearby communities are waiting to see if gambling will have other negative effects.

One thing is clear. Gambling in Maryland will generate a pile of money, and money has a way of corrupting state and local governments. Voters and officials will need to be vigilant about the growth of gambling and the corruption of government.

The entrance to the clubhouse is pictured above.

Skeleton of a dinosaur? What is the future of horse racing in Maryland?

The picture above was taken during reconstruction of the racetrack facility to accommodate casino gambling. Rebuilding was delayed by the discovery of asbestos in the old racetrack building, and by weather.

The racing industry is asking to hold at least 40 days of harness racing at the track this summer. In 2010, only one day of racing was presented because of construction at the site.

Slot machines were originally proposed to save the endangered horse racing industry in Maryland, which is home to numerous horse farms as well as racetracks. But the future of racing in the state is more in doubt than ever. Ocean Downs is the only one of Maryland’s casinos that will be co-located  with a racetrack. The state’s largest casino, with more than 5,000 slot machines, will be built at Arundel Mills Mall, rather than at the Laurel racetrack, as the voters expected when they approved gambling.

Rosecroft Raceway in Prince Georges County has already gone belly up. Will the surviving big racetracks at Pimlico and Laurel be able to compete with gambling at casinos?

Will people still go to Ocean Downs to see horse racing, or will most of the customers remain in the casino?

Or will increased purses financed by slot machine revenue attract more horses and fans to Maryland tracks?

The biggest reason Maryland voters approved slot machines is because the state needs additional revenue, and most voters don’t want higher taxes. It remains to be seen if the first three casinos bring in enough revenue to help balance the state’s budget. No progress whatsoever has been made on casinos authorized for Baltimore and Western Maryland.

Click here to see the glitzy new Web site for Ocean Downs.

What do you think about slot-machine gaming at Ocean Downs? Your comments are welcome below.

— John Hayden