Casino company seeks site at Elkton Operator would build complex for right to operate slot machines

August 03, 1996|By Michael Dresser and Thomas W. Waldron | Michael Dresser and Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

A Mississippi-based casino operator is dangling a $100 million carrot in front of Maryland officials: a lavish resort and entertainment complex in Elkton in exchange for the right to operate slot machines at the site.

Casino America Development Co., which owns or operates gambling operations in Mississippi and Louisiana, will unveil its plans for the massive complex in Cecil County on Wednesday, said Ira C. Cooke, the company's Maryland lobbyist.

Cooke said the proposed Isle of Capri Entertainment Resort would be built at the interchange of Interstate 95 and Route 279, the last exit off northbound 95 before it crosses into Delaware.

According to the company's theory, a gaming complex at that location would act as a giant magnet attracting gamblers on the heavily traveled interstate before they can cross the state line.

The result, Cooke said, would be that their money would stay in Maryland rather than flowing to Atlantic City or Delaware Park. The Delaware racetrack has enjoyed booming revenue since it won the right to install slot machines, raising concerns that Maryland racetracks and off-track betting parlors could lose business to it and to Dover Downs.

Should the project win approval, a certain percentage of the slot machine profits would be dedicated to increasing the purses at Maryland racetracks, as is done in Delaware, Cooke said.

The first phase of the complex would include a large off-track betting parlor with slots, a concert hall with ability to attract national acts and various restaurants and lounges, Cooke said. If revenue meets projections, the company could later add a hotel and conference center, he added.

Cooke said the company's investment in the project would amount to at least $100 million. He said the first phase of the project would create 400 to 500 full-time jobs and that a second phase could more than double that total.

But those enticements may not be enough to avert a tough fight in Cecil County, which has been enjoying healthy growth without gambling. Even before the formal announcement, county commissioners and some members of the local legislative delegation were expressing fierce opposition.

The Isle of Capri project will have to clear two hurdles. One is to win a change in state law to allow slots at OTB outlets -- a proposition that is opposed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and many legislators, even among those who are willing to consider allowing them at the tracks themselves.

Ray Feldmann, Glendening's deputy press secretary, said the vacationing governor would presumably oppose it.

"Governor Glendening has made it consistently clear that he is opposed to any expansion of casino gambling. This would seem to fall in that same area," Feldmann said.

The second challenge is to win local approval, because the Assembly is highly unlikely to approve a measure that doesn't allow some form of local control.

Oakley Sumpter, president of Cecil's Board of County Commissioners, said he would rather not see Elkton or Maryland depend on gambling for economic development.

"I would oppose it at this point and based on my other two commissioners' prior actions it would be unanimous," said Sumpter, a Republican. His view was echoed by Commissioner William Manlove, a Democrat who said he was morally opposed to gambling.

Two members of the local legislative delegation also expressed opposition to the project.

Del. Mary Roe Walkup, a Republican from neighboring Kent County, said she was "totally against" casino gambling and OTB parlors. And Del. Wheeler Baker, a Democrat from Queen Anne's County, expressed concern that the competition would hurt Eastern Shore veterans and fraternal organizations that devote half their profits from slot machines to local charities.

"I don't want to see anybody messing up what's working real good now," Baker said.

But the opinions of Delegates Walkup and Baker are likely to have far less impact than those of Sen. Walter M. Baker, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Del. Ronald A. Guns, chairman of the Environmental Matters Committee. Neither of these powerful Democratic legislators, who make their political base in Elkton, could be reached for comment last night.

Cooke expressed confidence that proponents of the development could persuade many doubters. "We think that once we are able to work with the community, they will clearly recognize its benefits," he said. The lobbyist cited polls by a Wilmington newspaper showing strong support for slots in Delaware.

Much of any economic benefit from Casino America could spill over state lines because Elkton-area companies draw many of their employees from Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. However, Cooke pledged that company would give preference to applicants from Elkton, Cecil County and other Maryland jurisdictions.

Casino America, a publicly traded company with $158 million in 1996 revenues, will have some all-star players on its team.

Cooke said the company's partners in the project will include a minority business enterprise led by former Baltimore Colts and Washington Redskins player Joe Washington and Franco Harris, the former Pittsburgh Steeler great who recently helped revive Baltimore's closed Parks Sausage Co.

Cooke said other "significant" partners, whom he declined to identify yesterday, would be disclosed later.

Casino America currently operates riverboat and dockside casinos in Bossier City, La.; Lake Charles, La.; Vicksburg, Miss., and its headquarters city of Biloxi., Miss.

Pub Date: 8/03/96

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