A group of African-American investors that includes basketball great Julius "Dr. J" Erving, Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer Franco Harris and former Colts and Redskins running back Joe Washington hopes to become a player in the racetrack casino business in Maryland.
The group, led locally by Baltimore businessman Anthony Fugett, has met in with key black legislative leaders, according to sources familiar with the effort. The investors also have had talks with Joseph A. De Francis and other owners of the Pimlico and Laurel Park racetracks.
If slot machines are legalized, the group wants to acquire a license to own a slots operation outright or, failing that, to become part-owner of a racetrack casino, the sources said.
Fugett declined to comment, referring questions to a spokesman for the group, Adrian Harpool, chief executive of Twenty-First Century Communications in Baltimore.
"I will confirm that the team was in yesterday [Wednesday] and that Julius Erving was with the team," Harpool said.
Harpool declined to discuss other details of the group's efforts, and he would not confirm that members had met with De Francis to discuss buying a minority stake in .
De Francis did not return phone calls yesterday seeking comment on whether the track's owners would be willing to accept a minority partner.
The group is making its effort amid a strong push by key African-American lawmakers to ensure that black businesspeople have some level of "equity ownership" in the state's tracks.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has proposed allowing 10,500 slot machines at four racetracks to raise money to solve the state's budget woes and to help Maryland's ailing horse racing industry.
Black lawmakers note that two of the Maryland tracks in line to get 3,000 slot machines each - Pimlico in Baltimore and Rosecroft in Southern Prince George's County - are in predominantly black communities.
The other two proposed slots venues are at Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County and a track planned for Allegany County.
A second group of black business people has been meeting with Prince George's-area legislators about opportunities to get involved with slots at Rosecroft or - if slots are expanded beyond the tracks - at the nearby National Harbor development.
One potential participant is Don H. Barden, a black businessman from Detroit who owns casinos in Las Vegas, Tunica, Miss., Colorado and Indiana.
Barden was seen outside a legislative hearing room Wednesday talking with state Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, a Prince George's Democrat, and others from that county's legislative delegation.
Seeking black support
Ehrlich, who is counting on the support of black legislators to pass his slots bill, has said that he is looking for ways to involve minorities as part equity owners of the state's slots emporiums.
Ehrlich has told members of the Legislative Black Caucus that he is prepared, if necessary, to write into his revised slots bill specific language calling for a certain level of minority ownership in the three Central Maryland tracks, according to a State House source.
The levels discussed were 10 percent ownership at Pimlico and Laurel Park, which are owned by the Canada-based Magna Entertainment Corp., and 15 percent at Rosecroft.
The minority ownership could be worth tens of millions of dollars. In some states, minority partners in casino ventures have sold their interest within a few years for many times their original investment.
Rawlings and votes
If a deal allows African-Americans to get partial ownership of the track casinos, it could bolster Ehrlich's chances of passing a slots bill that he has made the administration's top legislative priority this session.
A longtime supporter of slots, Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has said that he will not vote for a slots bill that does not guarantee a minimum level of minority participation.
The Baltimore Democrat said Ehrlich has agreed to support any agreement reached by the track owners and minority legislators. Rawlings said 20 to 30 votes in the 141-member House depend upon achieving a measure of black ownership.
"I'm not supporting making a bunch of white men rich who are owners of racetracks ... when African-Americans and women are not players in this," Rawlings said.
Rawlings declined to confirm the names of any of the sports figures who are interested in a stake, but he acknowledged seeing Erving, whom he described as a friend, on Wednesday.
Erving, executive vice president of the Orlando Magic, enjoyed a high-flying 16-year career as a professional basketball player, mostly with the Philadelphia 76ers, before retiring in 1987.
Under the rules that govern professional sports, he probably would have to relinquish his post with the Magic if he became part-owner of a racetrack casino in Maryland.
Harris, the storied former running back of the Steelers, has past business ties in Baltimore. He purchased Parks Sausage Co. in the mid-1990s, the first publicly held, black-owned business in the country. It was later sold to Dietz & Watson Inc.
Washington, a financial planner living in Baltimore County, was a running back for the Colts from 1978 to 1980 and played for the Redskins from 1981 to 1984. He is active in civic and community groups.
Fugett, former president of the Baltimore County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is president and chief executive of TLC Spring Water of Maryland LLC, a bottled water company. Before that, he worked for IBM as a systems engineer and in other positions.
Fugett was born and raised in West Baltimore and is the brother of the late Reginald Lewis, the multimillionaire owner of Beatrice Foods TLC in New York.
Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.
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