By Frank Vespe
For the second time in a week, the Maryland Racing Commission Feb. 16 put off voting on a proposed off-track wagering facility at the state fairgrounds in Timonium.
MRC chairman John McDaniel pledged that the racing commission would render a decision by the end of the week.
"We're not going to take any more testimony," McDaniel said following the commission's regular monthly meeting. "As a matter of fact, we can't deliberate any more. We just have to vote."
The Timonium project would place an OTB parlor on the second floor of the existing racetrack grandstand and was assumed by many in racing to be something of a no-brainer. It has instead engendered passionate community opposition.
More than 300 people, about 60% opposed according to a count of those who signed up to testify, turned out for the commission's hearing Feb. 11, with the boisterous crowd alternately cheering and heckling speakers.
Opponents of the project peppered commissioners with a variety of concerns, driven in part by a feeling that the process itself had been excessively secretive and in part by a concern that the facility would simply be a precursor to a casino at the fairgrounds.
McDaniel Feb. 16 cited two major reasons for again delaying the vote. For one thing, county councilman Wade Kach is hosting a meeting Feb. 17 involving representatives from the project and a handful of community leaders. For another, he pointed to "the fact that all the paperwork, legal and otherwise, is on the way but some hasn't been received."
"So to do it the right way, mostly as it relates to the community, (we're) attempting to be very open and transparent, giving them another opportunity" to be heard, McDaniel said. "The meeting (Feb. 17) is a tremendous opportunity and could be a chance for healing."
Sal Sinatra, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which is partners with the Maryland State Fair in the project, said that while he was disappointed with commission's decision to wait, he was looking forward to the community meeting.
"If it makes the community more comfortable, we're all in this together," Sinatra said. "As long as we're talking, that's a good thing."
Bill Marlow, a longtime board member of the Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society, the nonprofit which owns the fairgrounds and operates the fair, said he was "not really" disappointed with the outcome. "I think it goes to community confidence in what they're doing, waiting for everyone to be able to comment on it," he said.
Marlow said the OTB facility could open almost immediately once the racing commission and Baltimore County give their final approvals. Marlow and Sinatra said they don't want to see a casino at the fairgrounds.
"The Maryland Jockey Club's intent of the facility is strictly for horse racing," Sinatra told the racing commission. "We do not support a casino there."
Sinatra said he had a letter to the community drafted putting in writing that the company would not seek a Timonium casino, and that he was "hopeful" that the community would use it as "a working document."
And Marlow said his organization had "indicated that we support" the MJC's casino position and would be willing to put that in writing.
While some of the required permits are currently pending—which Marlow described as seeming "like a never-ending process"—Marlow said the fair is confident that it had followed all proper steps and that the property's zoning would permit off-track betting there.
Given those steps, Alan Foreman, general counsel to the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which supports the project, urged the racing commission to approve the project contingent on whatever conditions it would like to see met. Many observers had thought would be the commission's path.
But McDaniel said there was "no reason, we feel, that we can't postpone this for a day."