Casino owner scouts city for full-scale site

Vegas company urges Md. to broaden gambling beyond slots at tracks

`Destination-style resort casinos'

Legislative committee meets at Morgan State to hear opinions

October 08, 2003|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

A major Las Vegas-based company is scouting sites in Baltimore for a full-scale casino as it tries to persuade legislators to look beyond proposals to permit slot machines only at Maryland's horse racing tracks.

"We're looking at sites in the Baltimore metro area," said Michael Gisriel, an Annapolis lobbyist for Ameristar Casinos "We don't have anything under contract yet. The preference would be Baltimore, although we're open to other sites."

Gisriel said the company, which has casinos in Nevada, Missouri, Iowa and Mississippi, would seek to acquire an option on property near downtown Baltimore by early next year.

He declined to reveal specific sites, but said the company was looking at property other than the Inner Harbor.

Gisriel's comments came in an interview shortly after Ameristar Vice President Gordon Konofsky made a direct pitch for full-scale casinos to a legislative committee that is studying gambling in Maryland.

During a hearing at Morgan State University, Konofsky proposed to the House Ways and Means Committee that it consider allowing "two resort-style casinos, one in Prince George's County and one in the Baltimore area," in addition to four racetrack "racinos" proposed last year.

"The powerful economic benefits that can be provided by the gaming industry will not be fully realized by the state without the legalization of full-service, destination-style resort casinos," Konofsky said.

He predicted a blend of casinos and racinos would generate $1 billion annually in tax revenues after five years, about a third more than was forecast under a slots-at-tracks-only proposal earlier this year.

Ameristar's public pitch for full casinos follows a largely behind-the-scenes effort by Las Vegas casino tycoon Steve Wynn and developers of National Harbor in Prince George's County to open the door to casinos.

Last month, an Annapolis lobbyist for Wynn Resorts circulated a detailed, 65-page draft legislative proposal that calls for allowing destination resort casinos in Baltimore, Prince George's County and in Western Maryland, in addition to slot machines at tracks.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has said he favors slots at racetracks only and is opposed to full-scale casinos, complete with table games such as blackjack, poker and craps.

But a spokesman for Ehrlich signaled yesterday that the governor would be willing to consider legislation that includes casinos, along with slots at racetracks.

"He does not want to see casinos in Maryland and does not support it ... but is willing to listen to the other ideas [from legislators] that are out there," said Henry Fawell, the Ehrlich spokesman.

Asked specifically if Ehrlich is not ruling out the possibility of accepting a legislative proposal with casinos as part of it, Fawell responded: "That is correct."

Earlier in the day, Ehrlich said the issue of expanding gambling in Maryland "has a lot of momentum this year."

He said he did not expect a compromise with legislative leaders soon, and said he would be willing to negotiate on a plan "as long as it's not tied to any tax increase."

Joseph A. De Francis, chief executive of the Maryland Jockey Club, a minority owner of Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and Laurel Park, said the tracks can live with gambling elsewhere as long as the tracks are allowed to offer the same types of gambling as others and the tax rates are the same.

During the hearing, the Ways and Means Committee received conflicting views from business owners, community leaders and others. A group representing Maryland hotel owners said they favor full-scale casinos, but anti-gambling activists and people who live near Pimlico urged the panel to reject expanded gambling.

Baltimore County's legislative delegation made it clear that it strongly opposes slots at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium; Baltimore delegates who represent Pimlico said they oppose slots but are working to make sure that if they are brought to the track that it be done in a way that doesn't harm the community.

Jim McAlpine, president of Ontario, Canada-based Magna Entertainment Corp., majority owner of the two tracks, told legislators that the extent of an effort to rebuild Pimlico and the pace at which it gets done depends in large part upon bringing in slots.

"Slots are a means to an end," McAlpine said. "The real issue is will horse racing in Maryland survive?"

McAlpine indicated the future of the Preakness at Pimlico could be in jeopardy if the racetrack doesn't get slot machines and the revenue they bring.

"It will depend on the economic viability of horse racing in Maryland," he said, when asked about the future for the Preakness, one of racing's premier events.

The slots debate is unfolding under a cloud of suspicion. Federal investigators are proceeding with an inquiry into money provided by De Francis to a national campaign account controlled by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Top lawmakers, lobbyists and others have been contacted by the FBI in recent weeks.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he met with an FBI official twice - in August, and again last month. He would not discuss the contents of the conversation. "The fact that there's this investigation going on certainly puts a cloud over things," Busch said.

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