Product placement at the slots commission

Rocky Gap, the deluxe, state-controlled resort in Allegany County, appeared to be doing a pretty brisk business when I visited there last week. But that didn’t stop Bob Brennan, who runs the Maryland Economic Development Corp. (the owner of the resort), from slinging a pitch for it when he appeared before the state panel that is reviewing applications for slot machine facilities.

Rocky Gap does its best business in warmer months and on weekends, and the resort is looking for more ways to draw wintertime visitors. One of five allowed slots facilities was supposed to be at Rocky Gap, but nobody bid for the site, partially because of the state’s 67 percent tax rate on slots proceeds.

Brennan, in concluding a presentation about what slots mean for Rocky Gap (he says it can get by without them, but they could boost revenue significantly), suggested the slots commissioners might want to pay a little visit. Maybe they could even get a little deal, and stay with a view of Lake Habeeb for the price of a view of the resort’s golf course.

Not to be outdone, Buddy Roogow, the state’s lottery director, concluded a later presentation by suggesting that the commissioners play a few lottery games this week.

So, next up was a presentation by the Maryland State Police about the organization’s participation in background checks on slots applicants for four locations in the state. No big problems so far, said Capt. John Mooney.

Did he have a pitch of his own? No, unfortunately the MSP didn’t have any products to sell. “I will just say click it or ticket,” Mooney said.

Skimping on vacation spending — not destination

You’ve probably heard that Ocean City, MD had a great turnout this Memorial Day weekend — the highest number of visitors since ’93. It’s to be expected; the resort town posted higher-than-average numbers in April and early May, and gas prices are down considerably over last year.

It’s no secret that a long weekend in O.C. is a heckuva lot cheaper than the exotic splurges of years past. And Marylanders aren’t the only ones buckling down: a new USA Today poll finds that half of Americans don’t plan to travel much this summer, and a quarter are spending less on vacations thanks to the recession.

I buy it. My traveling companion and I are clamping down on “frivolous” spending, too. But a good deal is a good deal – and we found one we couldn’t pass up at voyij.com.

The travel aggregator found us a room at a four-star hotel in New Orleans’ French Quarter for $100 a night. Then we got a sweet deal on airfare through kayak.com, another aggregator that specializes in flight deals.

(Totally unpaid plug: check out those sites. Trust me, it’s worth it!) 

My point being: consumers will continue to seize a bargain, even if it’s not for an essential item. Don’t you agree?

Astronaut lands at Maryland Science Center

What’s orbited the earth more than 500 times and is only visible in Baltimore?

OK, not much of a riddle but the answer is a spacesuit being presented to the Maryland Science Center this Friday by local astronaut Richard Arnold.

The suit traveled more than 5.3 million miles and orbited Earth more than 200 times while on board Space Shuttle Discovery during its March 2009 mission. The spacesuit was sent into space specifically for the Science Center and will be on display in the SpaceLink exhibition.

Arnold will also stick around Friday to give two, 20-minute presentations at 10:40 a.m. and 11:20 a.m. on the center’s demonstration stage and will answer questions and sign autographs from 12–12:30 p.m.

Arnold, who lives with his wife and two daughters in Bowie, has been a NASA mission specialist since 2004. In August 2007 he spent 10 days on the crew of NEEMO 13 working in and around Aquarius, the world’s only undersea laboratory.

I wonder how much buzz this demonstration will generate? Since APOLLO 17 in 1972, NASA’s last moon landing,  interest in space travel has been waning.

The 1969 moon landing was a political and technological statement for America. And it was tangible. I get the feeling NASA’s missions now are so far advanced and obscure — and sometimes faltering — that they’re almost not fit for mass consumption and understanding. Hopefully Arnold can put a face on what NASA’s purpose is today and why we should care about space travel and research.

Maryland millionaires “go missing”

In case you missed it, an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal yesterday berated the state for “fleecing the wealthy.”

It argues that by raising the top marginal income-tax rate to 6.25% in 2008, Maryland pushed its highest earners to move out of state (or, more likely, to change their residencies to their second homes in tax-friendlier states.)

Here are the hard numbers:

  • In 2008, about 3,000 million-dollar tax returns were filed
  • In 2009, that number dropped to 2,000
  • Because Baltimore and Bethesda, among other cities, impose additional income taxes, the WSJ notes “the state-local tax rate can go as high as 9.45%
  • In 2008, MD projected an extra $106 million in revenue from the increase; because of the drop in returns, the wealthy actually paid $100 million less in taxes in 2009 than in 2008

Before you cry foul, the WSJ does concede that the majority of the loss in filings “no doubt” results from the recession. Regardless, some number of rich filers did leave the free state.

Moreover, the op-ed contends:

This is one reason that depending on the rich to finance government is so ill-advised: Progressive tax rates create mountains of cash during good times that vanish during recessions.

Matt Wieters to the big show

The words Orioles fans have been waiting for all season were uttered last night in a surprise admission from president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail during last night’s game broadcast:”It’s time.”

He was referring to calling up top prospect Matt Wieters, touted as one of the best minor league players in the nation — and a catcher to boot — who has torn through the O’s minor league teams during the past year notching five home runs, a .504 slugging percentage and .305 batting average this year with the Triple-A Norfolk Tides.

Most predictions had Wieters coming to town in mid-June for the home series in two weeks against the Atlanta Braves. But from a business standpoint, the sooner the highly touted prospect gets here, the better.

O’s fans are officially nuts for this guy: one blog called “Matt Wieters Facts” invites readers to submit Wieters “facts” (like “Matt Wieters Is So Important That When He Gets Called Up, Peter Schmuck Will Stop Wearing Hawaiian Shirts And Wear Suits Instead”).

Local and national news outlets all have stories evaluating everything from Wieters’ ability to cope with the pressure to his potential impact to what he ate last night for dinner.For a 20-26 team sitting in the basement of the AL East and drawing an average 21,473 fans a game, the Wieters-mania is nothing to sneeze at.

The attention will undoubtedly boost the Orioles’ national exposure and put more butts in the seats at least in the short term. But how long can it last? And is calling up Wieters early a good move in the long term or is it more about generating the buzz now?

Phished his wish

In the space of less than a year I have had the privilege of seeing two sensational and exceptionally different performances at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

The first time I got to hobnob with the city’s elite, courtesy of tickets from the office, with a tented gourmet feast, complete with chocolates on lollipop sticks. That night I sat in the Meyerhoff with a crowd of music lovers dressed in tuxedos and gowns and listened to Yo-Yo Ma perform at the BSO’s gala event.

Thursday night’s scene had an even more rarefied tone as dreadlocked guys and girls in tattered jeans, homemade skirts and tie-dye or belly-baring tops mingled with a more buttoned-up crowd for a performance by Trey Anastasio, lead singer of the jam-band Phish, with the BSO.

There were no signs asking for a “miracle” (Phish-fan lingo for needing a ticket to a show), butterfly wings or even dancing in the aisles. I admit to being surprised at the civility of it all, although one guy did try to throw his glow sticks into the balcony at the end of the show.

It was a night that seemed to signal change at the BSO under the leadership of Marin Alsop, the symphony’s “maestra,” as they try to usher in a new generation of music aficionados to their shows. Even the members of the orchestra, who usually show up in tuxedos and gowns, lightened things up with black shirts and slacks.

Trey seemed alternately at ease on stage, rocking out to his own music at times, and then as if he might burst into a fit of nervous laughter as fans in the crowd yelled out requests or randomly whooped with glee. No matter, even if he had gotten on stage and just said “hi,” his adoring fans would have given him an ovation.

I don’t remember how many ovations Yo-Yo Ma received in September, but Trey’s fans jumped to their feet five times on Thursday. Being the music lovers that they are, the audience saved the biggest cheer of the night for the members of the orchestra.

If the goal of the BSO was to attract more young people to the symphony, I think the sold-out show was a success. As my fiance and I walked to our car, he said it was the best birthday present he had ever gotten. Then he said something like, “It’s the best of both worlds. Classical musicians playing Phish songs, what could be better?”

I think the BSO may have phished his wish.

Slots case: all dollars and no sense?

Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver LLC, the firm that is representing the Laurel Racing Association, submitted its April bill this month, and here are the grand totals:

The firm asked for $329,806.80 in legal fees — 80 percent of the more than $412,000 it would have typically billed — and for nearly $40,000 in expenses.

The bill had to be submitted to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware because Laurel Racing’s parent company, Magna Entertainment, filed for Chapter 11 in March. It’s also itemized, so we know that Managing Partner Alan Rifkin spent 192.9 hours on the case at a rate of $505 per hour for a total of $97,414.50, and Partner Michael Berman spent 266.9 hours at an hourly rate of $395 for a total of $105,425.50.

OK, maybe I can see where they’re going with this. After all, the application fee was supposed to be $28.5 million, so I guess the racing association, a subsidiary of the bankrupt Magna Entertainment Corp., saved $28 million by hiring attorneys to argue their case in court.

But the longer the case, which is now in appeals, goes on the more expensive it gets for the racing association. And if they eventually get the decision overturned and win, won’t they eventually have to front the money if they still want to bid on a license to operate slots at the track?

At what point does arguing this case become a waste of time and money?

Snoring kills?

I got a pretty dramatic news release today with the subject head: “Snoring can kill you.”

Naturally, I read on. (Not for me of course…for my husband…yeah, that’s it.)

Anyway, the release was for Glen Burnie-based Sleep Solutions, a company that provides an in-home testing service for sleep disorders. Sleep Solutions, which also offers therapy products for sleep apnea, will analyze the tests and report the results to your physician.

The release said that untreated sleep apnea can result in thousands of dollars in medical expenses and — yes — even death:

“Sleep disorders are linked to hypertension, coronary artery disease, diabetes, erectile dysfunction, depression, epilepsy, obesity, cardiovascular disease, stroke and congestive heart failure as well as other conditions such as fatigue, irritability, and overall reduced quality of life,” it says. “Researchers estimate that over 18 million Americans suffer from moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea.”

OK, but according to Web MD, the risk of death is higher in those with untreated sleep apnea. And when the symptoms include: falling asleep while talking, personality changes and nighttime choking or gasping spells, I’d imagine one might schedule a visit with the doc before things get too crazy.

Is this release too over-the-top? Is it inflammatory? Or did the PR firm do its job — I’m writing about it, aren’t I?

Those pesky ground hogs got you down?

varmint.JPGAn interesting side note to my reporting while down in Ocean City earlier this week: during my interview with Marty Moran, captain of the Marlin Magic charter boat, his cell phone rang.

His side of the conversation went something like this:

“They’re in the yard?…Shoot them, you need me for that?…I’m with someone, let me call you later.”

Naturally, I had to ask.

Turns out Moran has a side business doing rodent control for local landowners in the area, and he handed me a business card to prove it. On the back it reads he specializes in ground hogs,  predators, fox, coyotes and crop damage.

OK, it may be a little funny to us “city folk,” but it reminded me about what these guys in the fishing industry are really about: they just like to catch stuff, and they like the skill involved in it. He may run expensive boats for people, but Moran’s middle class and no frills.

We tend to not think about who’s really affected when the wealthier people stop throwing around money — like the minimum wage earners in the hospitality industry who found themselves out of work when corporations began cutting back on expensive meetings and galas.

Maybe Moran ought to seriously consider making his side business a regular business. After all, ground hogs will always be digging holes in people’s gardens.

Fed up with D.C. United?

D.C. United co-owner Victor MacFarlane announced today that he has sold his interest in the soccer club to his partner Will Chang, chairman of the global investment firm Westlake International Group.

The MacFarlane-Chang D.C. Soccer LLC venture still includes one of the owners of the San Francisco Giants, and no other changes in management have been made, a club news release states.

MacFarlane has long made it known that when a new stadium site was selected for the team, he would like his real estate investment firm, MacFarlane Partners, to develop the area around it. But that site selection process has been a two-year ordeal of burned bridges from D.C.’s Poplar Point to Prince George’s County this year.

The team is looking at surrounding counties and is still very much interested in moving out of RFK Stadium in the District (who wouldn’t be?), but the search for the right land and community to support a stadium development complete with retail, residential and office space has been an arduous journey for United’s ownership team.

I wonder if MacFarlane, who purchased the team with Chang from the Anschutz Entertainment Group in 2007, just got tired of waiting. Was United just a real estate opportunity that didn’t pan out, and he’s cutting his losses? If and when the team finally moves, who will MacFarlane Partners have to compete with to develop the surrounding land and do you think he made the right call here?