Casino owner set to deal

June 09, 1995|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

The company that brought an exploding volcano and a battling pirate show to the Las Vegas Strip is interested in building a casino in Maryland.

Mirage Resorts, one of the nation's five largest casino companies, has hired Annapolis lobbyist Edward O. Wayson to represent its interest in legalizing casino gaming here.

Mirage is known for its two elaborate casino resorts on the Strip, the Mirage and Treasure Island. The casinos feature, respectively, an exploding 54-foot volcano and regularly scheduled battles between a pirate ship and a British frigate in a man-made port called "Buccaneer Bay."

Mr. Wayson registered with the state as Mirage's lobbyist yesterday, but had little to say about the company's plans here.

"They'd be interested in a land-based casino only, somewhere in a populated area," Mr. Wayson said.

While Mr. Wayson said he did not know where Mirage might build, Baltimore's Inner Harbor and Prince George's County are the two most talked-about locations for big casinos.

Gaming companies have hired many of Annapolis' top lobbyists in the past year in hopes of persuading the governor and the General Assembly to legalize casinos during the 1996 legislative session.

During the most recent six-month reporting period, casino interests spent nearly half a million dollars toward that end.

Mirage becomes the third major gaming company to publicly express interest in the state. The other two are Harrah's, which has also hired a lobbying firm, and Bally Entertainment, which has an agreement with the state's two harness racing tracks to try to develop casinos there.

Unlike some of the other companies, Mirage has a personal connection here. Its chairman, Steve Wynn, learned the gambling business while running a bingo parlor in southern Anne Arundel County during the early 1960s. The operation, Wayson's Bingo, is owned by Mr. Wayson's family.

In recent years, Mr. Wynn has become a key figure in the effort to change the image of casinos from a slick, Mafia-influenced enterprise to a more mainstream, theme-based entertainment business.

"He is the premier developer in the industry," said Clayton F. Moran, a research associate with the Smith Barney investment banking house.

The company's namesake casino is a monument to that strategy. The $630 million complex features a water-drenched volcano that erupts every 15 minutes beginning at dusk. It also houses a tropical rain forest and several animal exhibits, which include Siberian tigers, Atlantic bottle nose dolphins and sharks.

ANext door to the Mirage is Treasure Island, a $450 million casino that looks like something out of a Disney theme park. Its pirate battles draw crowds of tourists six and seven people deep.

Mirage Resorts owns two other casinos, the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas and the Golden Nugget-Laughlin in Laughlin, Nevada. The company ranked second nationally in gross gaming revenues last year with $727.6 million to Harrah's $1.1 billion.

Maryland is among at least three states where Mr. Wynn is looking to expand on the East Coast. Mirage hopes to build a casino in Bridgeport, Conn., if gaming is approved there. The company also has applied for a license in Atlantic City.

"At the current moment, their plate is full," said Mr. Moran. However, if plans in Atlantic City fall through, Maryland could be a good move for the company, he said.

While Mr. Wynn has been successful in Nevada, he owns no casinos outside the state. The quintessential Las Vegas showman, he has not always played well elsewhere. Mr. Moran (( says that Mr. Wynn's flashy style has put off some people in places where he hoped to build, including Vancouver, Canada.

After all, said Mr. Moran, "People don't want to put a volcano in their community."

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