Anti-Slots Activist Fights Gambling Close to Home
By Leila Taha
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Barbara Knickelbein first heard about the possibility of bringing more slot machines into Maryland in the fall of 1995 at the church she attended in Glen Burnie.
When she found out that a series of hearings would be held on the proposal, she decided she needed to attend. “I don’t know if it was God, but something propelled me to do it,” said Knickelbein, 65.
She found early on that, like herself, many others were energized by the possibility that gambling could return in a big way to Maryland. “I remember going into that hearing room,” she said. “It was standing-room only. People were very concerned.”
Though opposing slots in general has become a way of life for Knickelbein, she is now fighting a battle closer to home. A bid by Cordish Companies to install 4,750 slot machines adjacent to Arundel Mills Mall, eight miles from her Glen Burnie home, is expected to be decided this spring.
“It was a total surprise,” said Knickelbein of the proposal. “In all of these years there has not been one mention of a targeted location there.”
The bid by Cordish is one of four slots bids now being considered by the Video Lottery Facility Commission. The commission has the authority to grant five operating licenses for slot machines in the state. That’s one each in Anne Arundel, Cecil, Worcester and Allegany counties and in Baltimore City.
The Anne Arundel County Council must also vote this spring on a zoning change needed for the project.
Maryland voters last November approved allowing up to 15,000 slot machines in the state. The voter referendum stipulated that about half of the gross revenue from slots must go to Maryland public schools, with an additional 33 percent to the slots licensees, 9.5 percent to the horse racing industry, 5.5 percent going to local governments and 1.5 percent to small, minority and women-owned businesses.
Knickelbein said that, back in the '90s, it was what might happen to the community surrounding her home in Ocean City, Md., that sparked her concerns. She feared that gambling would come to the family destination where she has vacationed since she was 12.
The referendum approved in November does allow for a slots license in Worcester County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and the Video Lottery Facility Commission is now considering a bid for 800 slot machines at Ocean Downs racetrack in Berlin.
“I just sit on my deck [in Ocean City] and see the families walking with their little kids, and boogie boards and shovels,” she said. “I was appalled at the thought that we’d become ‘Atlantic City South,’ ‘Las Vegas East’ --again,” she said.
A Maryland law prohibiting commercial gambling was passed in 1963, and the last slots parlors were closed in 1968. Some gambling run by churches and nonprofit organizations has continued.
Knickelbein’s revulsion at gambling stems in large part from her faith and her belief in the importance of morality. She calls gambling “destructive of good government.”
“It is a social injustice for a state to become a predator of its own people, and that’s essentially what’s going to happen here,” she said.
Cordish Companies, the developer that bid for 4,750 slot machines at a site adjacent to the Arundel Mills Mall, says that the site will provide the local economy with a much-needed boost. Kim Damion, corporate director of marketing, said in an e-mail that the site will bring an average of $30 million a year in tax revenue to Anne Arundel County. In addition, Damion said, the project will create about 4,000 jobs, “most of which will be filled by local residents.”
Though he opposed November’s slots referendum, Anne Arundel County Council Chairman Ed Reilly said that he will support zoning legislation to bring slots to Arundel Mills Mall. “The voters have spoken in Anne Arundel County,” the Republican said, citing the income the county will receive from slots as their biggest advantage.
Reilly said that he can’t predict the outcome of the rezoning vote, because the council is divided, with two council members undecided.
Knickelbein has harsh criticism for supporters. “All they think of is money,” she said. “And they don’t care where it comes from, even if it comes from the people who can least afford to be separated from their money.”
When she first got involved in the slots fight, Knickelbein said she helped organize groups from her church to attend hearings and express their opposition to slots. In 1995 she helped found NOCasiNO-Maryland, an organization devoted to raising awareness about the potential negative impact of the gaming machines in Maryland.
“We thought we’d won the battle” in 1996, Knickelbein said, when the Joint Executive-Legislative Task Force to Study Commercial Gambling Activities in Maryland issued a report recommending that the state maintain its prohibition against commercial gambling.
The 1996 report suggested that commercial gambling would not bring substantial income to the state, and that the potential social costs were high. However, in subsequent legislative sessions spokesmen for the horse racing industry complained that Maryland was losing money to casinos and race tracks in neighboring states.
Knickelbein has kept busy opposing the slots. “If I had a nine-to-five job, I wouldn’t have the time to do all this,” she said. Since 1977 she has worked from home as a distributor for Shaklee, a company that makes environmentally friendly cleaning and beauty products.
In the early days, she said, she would spend hours sending out newsletters, but with the advent of e-mail, she can more easily send updates to the 500 people on her mailing list.
She compiles resource guides about the ills of gambling, and when talking about slots she often cites academic studies.
She said she spends hours each day communicating with other anti-slots groups around the country and coordinating efforts to pressure lawmakers to oppose slots.
She is now preparing to speak at public hearings in Anne Arundel County. Knickelbein is mobilizing fellow Anne Arundel County residents to attend hearings on a bill put forth by County Executive John R. Leopold to amend current zoning law to allow slots adjacent to the mall.
The legislation would define slots as a “conditional use” in the Arundel Mills area, which is considered an industrial park zoning district.
The County Council’s next hearing is April 20.
Though Knickelbein said she fears gambling near the mall could increase drunk driving, Reilly said he does not expect slots to have this effect.
"There will be more traffic, so of course there will be more accidents," he said. "But I don’t think there will be a huge increase in the ratio of DWIs."
Reilly said he expects the debate to drag into May and possibly June.
“I presume citizen activists will challenge this process every step of the way,” he said.