Baltimore communities concerned on casino revenues

BALTIMORE - For Keisha Allen, $10 million can do a lot of good for the community of Westport.

As the president of the Westport Neighborhood Association in South Baltmore, she sees the funding as a way to improve crime, foster job creation and help the close-knit community grow.

“We have been ignored for years,” she said. “This is a funding will foster a lot of innovation here.”

Westport is just one of a half-dozen communities set to receive money from community impact grants brought in by profits of the Horseshoe Casino, which is set to open in Baltimore City in August.

As members of the casino’s leadership development council come up with recommendations on how to spend the funding, leaders are devoting extra time to ensure money does not get diverted to other city needs like it did in Anne Arundel County last week.

According to an audit released last week by Anne Arundel County Auditor Teresa Sutherland, a portion of the $20 million generated from Maryland Live! and promised to local communities might have been used for other expenses other than community improvements.

“I worried from the beginning that would happen,” said Claire Louder, a member of the Maryland Live! local development council, “That’s money intended for local communities, and it wasn’t spent there.”

Louder said that if this happened in Anne Arundel, she worries where the funding might go in Baltimore City.

“It’s something you have to stay on top of,” she said. “Make sure you know where the money is going.”

Baltimore City Del. Luke Clippinger, a member of the Horeshoe’s local development council, said it’s their job to ensure the funding is spent properly.

“The mayor has taken our recommendations seriously,” he said. “It’s important that local communities benefit from the casino’s opening.”

IN FOCUS | With Baltimore’s Horseshoe Casino set to open in a few months, city police are setting up safety and security measures to deal with potential crime. Thursday at 6 p.m.

 Caron Brace, a spokeswoman for Baltimore City, said the law specifically states where the funding can be spent. 

This includes everything from infrastructure and public safety to other public services.

"The finance department has set up a dedicated special fund for the impact aid revenue to prevent it from being commingled with general funds," Brace said.

Dan Nataf, associate professor of political science at Anne Arundel Community College, said the secret shifting of funds can create a tense relationship between government officials and communities.

“The thing that comes out of this is whether someone speaks up about what happened,” he said. “These decisions can be very complicated.”

On a state level, it’s common for leaders to take from one fund and put it into another.

“Obviously there was a shortfall somewhere and the county needed to pay for it,” he said. “Those decisions come at a cost.”

The Baltimore City group, which established last year, spent months coming up with recommendations on how to spend the estimated $10 million its set to receive during the casino’s first year of business.

Top priorities included upgrades in roads, police enforcement and economic development.

Projects approved by the counsel include a range of plans including new bicycle lanes, a career development center and a “food advocates” plan to improve community nutrition.

There is also talk of creating a community grants program that would allow neighborhoods to apply for funding for improvements that might be needed.

The same initiative was set up by Anne Arundel County two years ago and continues to be highly successful.

“The interest has been amazing,” Louder said. “Communities have responded well to the program.”

Allen, who also sits on the counsel, said her community’s biggest worry with the casino was crime.

“The last thing we wanted was a spike in it,” she said. “That was a top priority for sure.”

Allen said Westport residents are excited for what the next year has to bring for Westport.

“It can only help us grow,” she said. “And make this place even better.”

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