Las Vegas casino developer Steve Wynn met with top legislative leaders in Annapolis recently to explore proposals for legalizing slots in Maryland -- and how his company might get a piece of the gambling action.
Wynn, the chairman of Wynn Resorts and former head of Mirage Resorts, talked about possibly getting involved through one of four horse tracks or at a "tourist destination resort," such as National Harbor in southern Prince George's County, said Del. Howard P. Rawlings.
"His focus is to build a major entertainment complex with racing, slots and entertainment," said Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat who serves as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Rawlings was among four top legislators Wynn met with separately on a Nov. 20 visit to Annapolis.
Wynn, who has roots in Maryland, also met with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller; Del. Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who is in line to become the next House speaker; and Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat whose House committee will handle slots legislation.
Wynn also tried to set up a meeting with Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who supports slots, but was unsuccessful, according to Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's spokesman.
Ehrlich felt a meeting with Wynn would be "inappropriate" since the casino developer could emerge as a competitor for a license to operate slots in Maryland, Schurick said.
"We want no one to raise any questions ... about the propriety of the process," Schurick said.
Schurick emphasized that Ehrlich favors allowing slots only at four racetracks: Pimlico in Baltimore; Laurel in Anne Arundel County; Rosecroft in Prince George's; and a track to be built near Cumberland in Western Maryland.
Wynn was accompanied during his visits to legislators by Ed Wayson, whose family runs a bingo hall in Anne Arundel County. Wayson declined to discuss the details of Wynn's visit to Annapolis, saying he was asked to refer calls to Wynn's company. Officials there would not comment on Wynn's meeting with Maryland legislators.
Rawlings said that when he met with Wynn, the casino operator brought up National Harbor as an ideal site for a casino-style gambling operation.
National Harbor is a $1.5 billion commercial hotel and entertainment complex under development at the foot of the Woodrow Wilson bridge, just off the Washington Beltway.
Rawlings said he favors restricting slots to the four tracks. But he said that he could envision some Prince George's legislators seeking to license slots at National Harbor rather than at the nearby Rosecroft harness racing track.
Neighborhood residents who oppose the National Harbor development have long said they believe it is a stalking-horse for a casino gambling venture. The developer, the Peterson Cos., denies that casinos are in its plans.
It is not clear how Wynn could get involved in legalized gambling ventures in Maryland if the state only allows slots at four tracks, as Ehrlich and key legislative leaders want.
"He either has to buy a racetrack, or he has to enter into a relationship with one of the racetrack owners," Rawlings said.
A management deal between a casino and track is not unprecedented. Caesars World Inc. runs slot operations at the Dover Downs track in Delaware under a management contract.
Joseph A. De Francis, the minority owner of the Pimlico and Laurel tracks, said there is no interest in making Wynn a partner in slots ventures at either of those tracks.
He also said he can't see the General Assembly passing legislation that would extend slots beyond the four tracks.
"I think the legislative leadership has made it very clear that, to the extent they are considering expanding gaming opportunities in Maryland, it would be focused on the racetracks," De Francis said.
Miller said that was the message he gave to Wynn during their 15-minute meeting.
"It was a very informal conversation," Miller said, "and I explained to him what I thought the new governor envisioned in Maryland, which is enhanced forms of revenue from slots at racetracks -- and tracks only -- dedicated to education only."
Miller said he knows Wynn, whose visit to Annapolis was first reported by The Washington Post on Wednesday, as a former constituent. He said he has met with him "on a couple of occasions" in the past.
Miller said he does not know if there will be any opening for Wynn to get involved in gambling ventures in Maryland. "I don't know if there is any potential for him," Miller said. "I'm not sure he plans to come to the state of Maryland."
He said Wynn did not mention National Harbor when they met. But a casino venture there would fit with Wynn's philosophy of having gambling at destination resorts along with other forms of entertainment near the water, Miller said.
Wynn got his start in business with the Wayson family at its bingo hall at Wayson's Corner in Anne Arundel County.
Wynn was responsible for developing several opulent casinos around the country, including the Bellagio, Mirage and Treasure Island in Las Vegas; Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Miss.; and the Atlantic City Golden Nugget, now the Atlantic City Hilton, in New Jersey. He sold Mirage Resorts to MGM Grand for $6.4 billion in 2000 and is developing La Reve, a huge casino, hotel and retail store complex at the site of the Desert Inn Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.