Ocean Downs Casino near Berlin, Md., is expanding its business, as the Worcester County Commissioners added a Casino Entertainment District to the zoning code during their meeting on Oct. 20.
The district would exist as a permitted use in the A-2 (Agricultural) district and establish regulations as an overlay district, thus allowing the casino to exist independently.
When it was created, the casino could only exist as an accessory to the Ocean Downs racetrack. With an overlay district, the property would be allowed uses such as retail shops, hotels, theaters and exhibition space, all of which are prohibited in the A-2 zone.
Most of the casino property is A-2, but 7.7 acres are zoned C-2 (Commercial).
Ed Tudor, director of review and permitting, pointed out that, because of a Board of Zoning Appeals approval for a fairground in 1997, some of the above those are already allowed via special exception.
Attorney Joseph Moore, representing Ocean Downs, said that the property needed to be rezoned because the accessory use — the casino — had turned into the main use. In addition, the casino could expand.
One opportunity could be a hotel, if the state law changed. Moore said that, if it did, a third party not legally or financially connected with the casino could buy or lease property from the casino and build a hotel.
“If you pass the overlay zone, we request you to amend the overlay bill to state that any hotel, one hotel, at the location would be limited to 150 rooms,” Moore said, adding that that would ensure no competition with Ocean City hotels.
Those rooms could also be compensated by the casino.
He said that, under the current code, anyone could build a hotel next to or across the street from the casino, since it is surrounded by C-2 zoning.
“We want folks to come, we want them to win, but we also want them to give us some money so we can share it in Worcester County,” Moore said.
Worcester County, Berlin, Ocean Pines and Ocean City, Md., all receive monetary benefits from the casino revenues.
In her pitch to commissioners, Bobbi Sample, manager of Ocean Downs, said that since the casino opened in 2011, it has provided $29 million in total to the county and municipalities. Those funds have paid for projects such as the new Berlin Police Department facility, road paving in Ocean City and Ocean Pines, debt service for Worcester Technical High School and county vehicles.
Sample added that the bill would add transparency so that the casino wouldn’t have to operate under special exceptions.
“Everything would still need to be approved by Planning & Zoning,” Sample said.
Although there were concerns about another casino popping up in Worcester, Sample said that was unlikely to happen, especially since it would require a state referendum.
Another concern was increased traffic, especially for Ocean Pines, down Route 589.
At the request of the Ocean Pines Association, Sample said a traffic study would be conducted for all of Route 589 and that the County would approve whoever is conducting the traffic study.
She added that the casino has experience hosting large events.
“When people attend large functions at the casino, you spread out the traffic, because they want to patronize the casino,” Sample said.
Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, opposed the amendment on behalf of the association.
She said that when the casino was first proposed, the association feared that income would move from small businesses to large gaming corporations, but that did not happen because industries were involved with casino legislation.
Jones added that tourism is the economic driver in Ocean City, with 1,000 new hotel rooms and construction on the 40th Street convention center.
“COVID has really driven a lot of tourism businesses to the brink, and this is a really hard time,” Jones said. “We urge you to take a pause.”
Representing the Ocean Pines Association, OPA President Larry Perrone voiced support for the casino district, adding that he hadn’t heard any negative comments from Ocean Pines.
He said that without the casino, the association wouldn’t receive enough funding for road improvements.
“If the casino is able to bring people in and keep them longer and keep them in the casino spending money, ultimately, everybody gets a little bigger piece of the pie,” Perrone said.
County Commissioner Jim Bunting countered that he had received numerous negative comments about the casino from Ocean Pines residents.
Hale Harrison of Harrison Group Hotels said that the casino is breaking its original deal and that there could be multiple hotels near the casino to compete with Ocean City.
“The casino is coming back and trying to take another bite of the apple,” Harrison said.
William Rickman, former owner of Ocean Downs, clarified that there has only never been a hotel near the casino because he didn’t want one, but that there was always the possibility, especially since its surrounded by commercial property.
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan agreed with Harrison that an expanded casino could harm Ocean City hotel owners.
“I have to admit [the casino] fit in a lot better than many of us thought it would, but only because of restrictions that were put in place,” Meehan said.
Sample said that no one can live in a competition-free bubble.
“I’m not down in Virginia trying to lobby against [casinos]. … I’m trying to set up our business to best compete with that,” Sample said.
County Commissioner Chip Bertino said that the casino has been a good neighbor and has the right to grow its business.
“The casino … is looking to have a place for casino enthusiasts to sleep overnight, not having to go somewhere else, and keep them on their grounds,” Bertino said. “As a businessperson, why wouldn’t they want to do that?”
County Commissioner Joseph Mitrecic agreed that the casino had been a good neighbor but was skeptical that a traffic study would yield unbiased results.
He added a fear of competing for business between Worcester County and Virginia Beach, Va.
“If you drive down [Route] 113, it is some of the most depressed areas I’ve ever seen in my life, so if we’re going to entice those people to come here and gamble with money that they could use for something else, that scares me,” Mitrecic said.
The addition of a casino district passed, with Mitrecic and Bunting in opposition.