LITTLE ORLEANS – Miles of rolling farmland hemmed in by the towering Blue Ridge Mountains, acres of state forest and a few dairy farms compose most of this Western Maryland hamlet too small to even be called a town.
This pastoral landscape in Allegany County was chosen four years ago by businessman William Rickman Jr. as the ideal spot to revitalize competition in the state’s horse racing industry with a new mile-long thoroughbred and harness track.
But this $20 million to $35 million private investment in the state’s third-poorest county has carved a chasm in this tight-knit community, separating track supporters from those who fear losing their quality of life.
Neighbors fear the track could significantly impact the water supply, draining wells already strained by normal household use. Some also fear the destruction of family farms and livelihoods.
Many local business owners, however, have come out in support of the track for its predicted economic impact.
Donna Wallizer and her husband co-own the Little Orleans Campgrounds located about four miles south of the proposed track. Surrounded by acres of Green Ridge State Forest and accessible by a long stretch of winding, two-lane highway filled with steep turns and jutting rock, Wallizer hopes horse racing will bring more customers.
The campground relies on seasonal customers, renting spaces for campers and RVs for six or 12 months at a time. Many come for outdoor adventure activities like hiking and boating.
“Working people in Little Orleans are in favor of (the track) because it will bring jobs,” Wallizer said. “We desperately need the money.”
The project could bring anywhere from 100 to 500 jobs, with estimates varying widely.
But Rickman’s grand designs for the future of racing have been held hostage for the last two years by the General Assembly as it debated Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr.’s proposal to legalize slot machine gambling to pay for landmark education reforms. Ehrlich’s first slots bill narrowly passed the Senate last year, but was killed in the House.
Although Rickman said his original plans did not include slots, he has since said the track would not be viable without them.
The Greater Cumberland Committee, representing 55 business presidents in Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, has also endorsed the track.
“We’ve gone on record as supporting the track and slots as long as they are closely regulated and the money goes to education,” said Executive Director Anna Custer. “We’re looking forward to the Thornton money, and if slots can help that, then we’re in favor.”
But even before slots became a possibility for the new track, opposition from neighbors threatened to scratch the project.
Bill Valentine, who owns a family plumbing business in Little Orleans, said his grassroots organization, Citizens Against the Racecourse, has compiled lists of more than 200 people opposed to the track. He said residents are most concerned about the track’s impact on the water supply and their quality of life.
During zoning hearings, Valentine and other opponents argued that Rickman’s assessments of the water supply were inaccurate.
Rickman told the county zoning board that the track would use about 20,000 gallons of water per day and that existing water sources on the property and new wells would be sufficient.
The county approved development, and shortly after Valentine presented testimony from residents who said their wells had run dry during the previous summer due to drought. And according to a study commissioned by his group, Valentine said the track could use an average of 27,000 gallons of water per day.
“Any place where there’s not a municipal water supply can only support scattered development,” Valentine said in an interview.
Citizens Against the Racecourse unsuccessfully appealed the county’s approval of the project.
Little Orleans residents have also said they worry about an increase in traffic on the rural roads and drunken-driving incidents along stretches of Interstate 68 which partly borders Rickman’s property.
Family farms may also be obliterated by the need for hotels and restaurants necessary to support the track and its patrons.
Valentine said the courtesy extended to Dorchester County and Ocean City to keep slots out of their “family” communities should be extended to Allegany, too.
Delegate LeRoy Myers, R-Allegany, who represents Little Orleans, agreed with Valentine, saying slots were nothing more than a lure to bring economic development to the region.
“The administration obviously doesn’t want to put a track where people don’t want it,” Myers said. “But no one’s going to make that kind of investment in Allegany County (without slots).”