How Casinos Corrupt Cities
Baltimore’s Horseshoe Casino opened last month to capacity crowds as Caesar’s Entertainment entered Maryland’s already-crowded gambling market. Our selfie-loving Governor and a host of other local politicians joined Iggy Azalea, Gladys Knight, and even Guy Fieri (his new restaurant is one of three on-site) for the celebration. The line to get in stretched well around the block and into the parking garage, where prospective patrons could watch fireworks shooting off in the daytime as they admired showgirls pouring drinks while suspended in midair. Those politicians and businessmen responsible for bringing the casino into existence stood by and repeated well-worn lines touting the economic benefits that would flow to the city and state from this endeavor.
Baltimore is only the latest in an increasingly long national line of former industrial cities looking to make a splash and refill its coffers by going with gambling. Yet when you consider David Frum’s well-documented case that casinos are very bad for local economies, and even worse for local communities, those cities’ future prospects start to look even more tragic.
Baltimore has long been beset by a large, flashy downtown developments whose main goal is to attract tourists and whoever it is that buys waterfront condominiums, even while the city itself is still losing permanent residents. The Baltimore Grand Prix, for example, only made it through three years of unprofitable existence before “scheduling conflicts” prevented it from reappearing for 2014 and 2015 after years of complaints from local naysayers concerned about the city pumping so much money into a one-weekend event (some of which the city is still ponying up for years later). While the city, admirably, continues to lend its support to smaller-scale developments in neighborhoods—my own included—the biggest projects continue to totemically shout “jobs!” while handing out larger and larger tax breaks to developers, and shoehorning upper-class amenities into “Enterprise Zones” intended for poorer areas. One of the more comic elements in the whole story is that the campaign contributions given by the developers of Harbor Point, the latest Baltimore waterfront development, run from $250 to the mere thousands, while the tax breaks handed out in return are measured in the millions. In a particularly egregious media-oriented move, the main developer will himself buy the first round of bonds floated by the city to help pay for his construction.
Democratic leaders in Maryland have been quite invested in gambling. Gov. Martin O’Malley once called a special session to approve a new casino in Prince George’s County despite having called slot machines a “morally bankrupt” way to fund education. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has very openly embraced gaming as a crucial part of the city’s economic future, and even took the time between bites of Caesar’s-subsidized salmon two years ago to regret that voters “were being misled” intentionally on the casino issue. Despite her earlier ambition to have all 1,700 casino jobs filled by Baltimore residents, she was apparently pleased that local residents will make up 51 percent of the workforce, and she defended the decision to use the community impact fund for the steam line. Maryland’s former Republican governor, Robert Ehrlich, also supported expanded gambling in the state for similar reasons—but even he never had the chutzpah to proclaim a “data-driven” approach to governance, like both Rawlings-Blake and O’Malley, while embracing an economic development strategy proven to increase crime, poverty, and addiction.
Baltimore’s casino is not “built to meld in,” but to make itself the center of attention and budgets. The Horseshoe is as close to the two stadiums and a major hospital as humanly possible, and it will require additional police, EMS, and transportation services (including extensive repaving) for an area that was already underserved, to the tune of $7 million. It is plopped alongside an interstate that is already overburdened with commuters whose options for getting into or out of the city are extremely limited. Repairing steam line running to the casino cost $3 million, for which the city raided a “community impact fund” in order to make sure that Caesar’s hit their advertised opening date. (Local independent journalists later found that the casino should have been responsible for the $3 million if city ordinances had been followed.) Even that number is overshadowed by the revelation that 80 percent of “community impact funds” will be spent supporting the casino.
There are opportunities here for urban conservatives to exercise leadership on casinos and big-ticket development, but it will require bucking party shibboleths on both sides. Effective opposition to the rank crony capitalism that accompanies high-profile downtown development requires an alliance across ideological and party lines. Conservatives and liberals both have naturally principled objections to government coziness with big business, but the corrupt status quo is sustained, as in many major cities, by the one-party domination of Baltimore’s politics and the relentless flow of money to politicians who are (sometimes literally) in bed with lobbyists. Until the city comes to its senses and boosts civic participation with open primaries (or Republicans actually turn out to the polls in numbers sufficient to win some elections), conservatives in Baltimore and similar cities should probably just register Democrat and inject their voices and votes into the discussion wherever possible. They could also do as Carol Ott, named Baltimore’s Best Republican by the alt-weekly City Paper, does and simply engage their community without changing their registration. And conservatives outside the city limits can voice their opposition to state subsidies for such activities.
Another natural opportunity can be found in religious opposition to slots, which will require working in tandem with historically African-American churches. Theological objections to gambling are not just products of abstract moral principles or outdated religious attitudes, but are driven by the exploitative nature of state-run gambling, which in many ways can be viewed as a tax on poor people in Baltimore for the benefit of the already-richer counties. Some of the loudest opposition to gaming expansion in Maryland came from black churches in communities that would be hit the hardest by predatory gambling. Similarly, community associations are a good way for conservatives to begin engaging—the Westport Neighborhood Association has been among the most vocal casino opponents, fighting on behalf of its residents against the well-funded gambling powers.
What are the alternatives to flashy downtown developments that suck money from city residents into the hands of Caesar’s Wall Street creditors? For one, the city could focus more energy and attention on initiatives that benefit smaller, needier neighborhoods. In my own community of Sandtown-Winchester, this has taken the form of an urban farm that hires men and women returning home from prison. Here, investment from the city is supporting the production of a commodity that is useful to the neighborhood, reclaiming unused land that was formerly blighted or vacant, and encouraging local ownership among citizens who need as many opportunities as they can get. Supporting neighborhood commercial zoning would require even fewer city funds and has the potential to make a bigger impact in bringing economic power to neighborhoods. Even bigger projects such as railyard renovation or increasing accessibility to parks can easily improve local fortunes with better planning and political mobilization.
Gambling interests and their political puppets will continue to sow economic, cultural, and social tares until thoughtful city residents band together against them at poll booths, council hearings, and the streets. Baltimore’s politicians and other urban planners are intelligent people who speak quite frequently of their concern for the city’s well-being. This leaves them with absolutely no excuse for supporting a parasitic industry in exchange for a cut of the earnings. They are not lightly gambling away their city’s future, they are heaving it away with gusto. Now that they have bet their money—and ours—on casinos, it is time for voters to call them to account and call for wiser investments. That should be a conservative message if there ever was one.
Matthew Loftus lives in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore and works as a family physician. He is a regular contributor at Mere Orthodoxy and is releasing a novel about doctors behaving badly chapter-by-chapter at Trousseau Syndrome.
This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.