Gambling on the Maryland-Virginia Waterfront

the Potomac Shores development on Cherry Hill Peninsula is one possible location for a riverboat gambling parlor, licensed under Maryland laws
the Potomac Shores development on Cherry Hill Peninsula is one possible location for a riverboat gambling parlor, next to Virginia customers but licensed under Maryland laws
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Since 2007, Maryland has legalized slot machines and then casino gambling. That has impacted business at the West Virginia and Delaware gambling centers. Charles Town, WV used to be the closest place for DC-area residents to gamble legally, and 50% of the business in Delaware's casinos came from Maryland residents. As the Delaware Lottery director noted:1

You'll need a pretty good excuse to drive past a Maryland casino to come to one of ours now... It used to be just us and Atlantic City, but we have a proximity problem now. We couldn’t have the monopoly forever.

Maryland's expansion of gambling means Northern Virginians no longer need to drive to Atlantic City or to the racetrack at Charlestown, West Virginia. Virginia gamblers can cross the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to gamble at three casinos in Maryland along the I-95 corridor. Most gamblers in Maryland's facilities live within 30 minutes of the facility, though the sixth casino in Maryland at National Harbor in Prince George's County may draw as much as 20% of its customers from tourists visiting DC. The National Harbor casino will also attract Virginia residents, which Maryland counted on when assessing where it should authorize its sixth casino:2

...the new casino in Prince George’s County, at any of the three locations proposed, will be the most conveniently-accessible casino for most of the population of Virginia.

Virginia is not a gambling-free state. Virginia has a state lottery, and authorizes many bingo operations. The Virginia Racing Commission licenses pari-mutuel betting at steeplechase races (such as the Gold Cup in Fauquier County) and at the Colonial Downs racetrack between Richmond and Hampton Roads, and there are eight off-track betting parlors acattered across the state for pari-mutuel betting on out-of-state tracks.

Virginia strategically located two off-track betting parlors near North Carolina in Alberta (on I-81) and Ridgeway (on US 220, near US 29), plus one near Tennessee in Weber City in Scott County (on US 23, near I-81). State officials clearly understood the concept of drawing customers across state lines for gambling, in order to increase tax revenues in Virginia.

off-track betting parlors in Virginia are located to meet customer demand in the urban areas - but locations in Alberta, Ridgeway, and Weber City are designed to pull customers across the North Carolina/Tennessee borders
off-track betting parlors in Virginia are located to meet customer demand in the urban areas - but locations in Alberta, Ridgeway, and Weber City are designed to pull customers across the North Carolina/Tennessee borders
Source: Colonial Downs, Colonial Downs OTB Locations

The General Assembly has refused to authorize a referendum on riverboat gambling, which could lead to "dens of iniquity" casinos with poker, blackjack, and slot machines that compete with Maryland or West Virginia casinos. A Portsmouth legislator has requested state authorization of a casino or riverboat gambling to finance transportation projects in the Hampton Roads region and spur development in that economically-depressed city, claiming Virginians spend $1.5-$2 billion annually at out-of-state casinos.3

In 2014, the bill finally received approval by a key committee in the State Senate, but the State Senate’s Democratic leader has assessed the potential of final approval of casino gambling in Virginia as very low, saying:4

The only question about casino gambling is who will be the 50th state to get it - us or Utah....

Forty-nine states will have it before we get it... You can bet that at that casino across the river, probably a third to 50 percent of their revenue is gonna come from Virginia. They’ll be raking in a fortune before it dawns on us that we should have done that a long time ago. It’s money that could have stayed in Virginia, but once again we’ll be left out in the cold.

Maryland gambling companies have saturated the market along I-95, but there is still an under-served market south of Fairfax County. From Lorton to Richmond, there are many potential customers interested in entertainment that includes gambling, but reluctant to drive through congested Northern Virginia traffic to reach Maryland's existing casinos. That creates the opportunity for Maryland to expand its gambling operations, and authorize a new gambling riverboat docked on the Virginia shoreline.

There is a history of gambling barges and boats next to Alexandria, Prince William, Colonial Beach, and Coles Point. In Prince William County, the SS Freestone (built in 1910 as a passenger steamer and originally called City of Philadelphia) was docked at Freestone Point. Technically, it was located in Charles City County. The gambling boat offered liquor-by-the-drink as well as 100 slot machines in 1957-58. Virginia objected, and as part of the 1958 revision of the Compact of 1785 regarding control of activities on the Potomac River, Maryland required gambling boats to be accessed from land in Maryland. That ended the borderline tradition, and the SS Freestone was renamed the SS Potomac and finished her working days on the Hudson River.6

the SS Freestone (red X) was docked at what is today Leesylvania State Park, upstream (north) of the Potomac Shores development on Cherry Hill Peninsula
the SS Freestone (red X) was docked at what is today Leesylvania State Park, upstream (north) of the Potomac Shores development on Cherry Hill Peninsula
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

In 1957, the Saturday Evening Post highlighted Colonial Beach as "Las Vegas of the Potomac." As described by the Washington Post in 2003:5

In the 1950s, Colonial Beach in Virginia's Northern Neck was a notorious gambling hotbed, a wildly popular nightlife resort drawing revelers from throughout the region. The town had been a popular summer getaway for the urban set since the early 1900s. But when a quirk of geography let Colonial Beach take advantage of Maryland's slot machine laws, the resort went on a gaming spree that lasted nearly a decade.

Colonial Beach was far from an urban area, but customers from as far away as Richmond could drive US 301 to access the Las Vegas of the Potomac
Colonial Beach was far from an urban area, but customers from as far away as Richmond could drive US 301 to access the "Las Vegas of the Potomac"
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

You can still gamble at The Riverboat in Colonial Beach, though there are no slot machines. You can buy a Virginia Lottery ticket, then step a few feet across the border and purchase a Maryland Lottery ticket, bet in a Maryland Off Track Betting (OTB) parlor, play keno, and occasionally join a "Texas Hold 'em" tournament.

The tradition of borderline gambling on the Potomac River was slow to fade away. As late as 1979, the Coles Point Tavern was raided by Maryland State Police. They took a boat across the river, found gambling equipment, and arrested the owner. (As Captain Renault said when closing down Ricks Bar in the movie Casablanca, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here...")7

the Coles Point Tavern is on pilings, just across the Maryland border
the Coles Point Tavern is on pilings, just across the Maryland border
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

In 2003, when Maryland legislators were debating whether to permit casinos, Virginia officials recognized the potential for a return of borderline gambling operations. The Virginia House of Delegates asked the adjacent state to "refrain from authorizing... gambling in or on the shores of the Potomac River." The sponsor of the bill was motivated by moral objections to gambling, but also acknowledged the economics of shoreline gambling were not in Virginia's favor when he commented "They get the money, we get the problems."8

The number of suitable locations for such riverboats is limited. The boundary line between Maryland and Virginia does not follow the low-water mark of the Potomac River exactly.

The boundary often cuts across bays, from headland to headland, leaving Virginia with portions of the river. Prince William County between Occoquan and Leesylvania State Park, for example, is too far from the Maryland-Virginia border for customers to walk on a pier to a riverboat.

South of the state park, however, is the Cherry Hill Peninsula. The proposal to develop that area into the Potomac Shores community includes plans for a town center at the tip of the peninsula. Anyone living there would experience a long drive just to get to I-95, in order to commute to any job not located near a Virginia Railway Express (VRE) station.

However, if a Maryland gambling operator offered economic incentives for a struggling development in Virginia... who knows what might be possible?

the Maryland-Virginia border comes close to the shoreline from Cockpit Point to Quantico, so gamblers at Potomac Shores could walk on a short pier from the Virginia shoreline into a casino riverboat located in Maryland
the Maryland-Virginia border comes close to the shoreline from Cockpit Point to Quantico, so gamblers at Potomac Shores could walk on a short pier from the Virginia shoreline into a casino riverboat located in Maryland
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Quantico 7.5 x 7.5 quadrangle map (Revision 1, 2013)

Links

References

1. "Maryland raising stakes in casino wars with Delaware and West Virginia," Washington Post, March 31, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/maryland-raising-stakes-in-casino-wars-with-delaware-and-west-virginia/2013/03/31/d90dde90-96f7-11e2-a976-7eb906f9ed9b_story.html (last checked February 10, 2014)
2. Projected Gaming Revenues and Impacts of Proposed New Casinos in Prince George’s County, Maryland (DRAFT), Cummings Associates, November 26, 2013, Maryland Gaming website, http://cdn.mdlottery.com.s3.amazonaws.com/Gaming/Consultant%20Reports/Task%20I%20II%20Cummings%20Associates.pdf; "Maryland Casinos Draw Mostly Local Crowds," Capital News Service, December 21, 2012, http://cnsmaryland.org/2012/12/21/maryland-casinos-draw-mostly-local-crowds/ (last checked February 12, 2014)
3. "Bill allowing Portsmouth casinos clears committee," The Virginian-Pilot, February 4, 2014 , http://hamptonroads.com/2014/02/portsmouth-casinos-bill-clears-committee-hurdle (last checked February 2, 2014)
4. "Virginia resists the siren call of casinos as gambling halls proliferate across the country," Washington Post, November 29, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-resists-the-siren-call-of-casinos-as-gambling-halls-proliferate-across-the-country/2013/11/29/d33c51c8-56b3-11e3-8304-caf30787c0a9_story.html; "Portsmouth gambling proposal still faces long odds," The Virginian-Pilot, December 17, 2013, http://hamptonroads.com/node/700441 (last checked December 19, 2013)
5. "Vegas-on-Potomac," Washington Post, June 11, 2003 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2003/06/11/AR2005033107171.html (last checked December 1, 2013)
6. "Survey Form: Fairfax House Site," Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission, File No. 76-74, January 1980, http://eservice.pwcgov.org/library/digitallibrary/hsdw/L_Folder/LeesylvaniaSite76-45/pdfs/LeesylvaniaSite76-45SurvC.pdf; "Down Home in Woodbridge," Cooperative Living, June 2001, http://www.co-opliving.com/coopliving/issues/2001/June/downhome.htm; Greg H. Williams, World War II U.S. Navy Vessels in Private Hands, McFarland & Company, 2013, p.151, http://books.google.com/books?id=1zmNAgAAQBAJ; "Remembering ~ Excursion Vessels of New York Harbor," World Ship Society, http://worldshipny.com/citykeansb.shtml (last checked July 27, 2014)
7. "Maryland Police Charge Virginia Tavern Owner," The Free Lance-Star, August 17, 1979, http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1298&dat=19790817&id=h-BLAAAAIBAJ&sjid=Z4sDAAAAIBAJ&pg=2221,2138885 (last checked April 1, 2014)
8. "Va. House Wants Maryland To Keep Slots Off the Potomac," Washington Post, February 20, 2003, online at Maryland State Archives, http://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc5700/sc5796/000005/000000/000003/unrestricted/post20feb2003.html (last checked December 1, 2013)

four counties in Maryland used local option authority to allow slot machines, until the state legislature over-ruled them and banned slots between 1968-1997
four counties in Maryland used local option authority to allow slot machines, until the state legislature over-ruled them and banned slots between 1968-1997
Map Source: Maryland State Archives, Map of Maryland Counties & County Seats


Horse Racing and Gambling in Virginia
Virginia-Maryland Boundary
Boundaries and Charters of Virginia
Virginia Places