Land deal lays base for slots in Cecil County

July 09, 2008|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,Sun reporter

A national casino operator has secured a deal with one of Cecil County's largest landowners that could pave the way for a slots parlor just across the Interstate 95 tolls in Perryville if voters approve November's gambling referendum.

Penn National Gaming Inc. announced this week that it secured an option to buy 36 acres to operate a slots venue on the grounds of a proposed 150-acre tourism complex being developed by Stewart Associates, a major property owner in the county. Penn National, which owns Charles Town Races and Slots in West Virginia, among other venues, has also vowed to use its financial muscle to push for the slots referendum.

The developer is devising a plan to build a hotel, a visitors center, restaurants and shops on land just north of I-95, beyond the tollbooths and across the highway from the Perryville outlets.

The entry of Penn National, a company with $2.4 billion in revenue last year, would provide deep pockets to efforts to persuade voters to approve the November referendum. That measure would amend the state constitution and authorize 15,000 slot machines in five locations, including Cecil County.

The four other sites would be in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Allegany and Worcester counties.

"We intend to support Maryland's November slot machine referendum both financially and by educating voters on the potential economic benefits of new development in the state," Peter M. Carlino, Penn National's chief executive, said in a statement.

Slots opponents said they were undeterred by the company's entry into the debate, though they acknowledged that it could provide a boost for gambling proponents.

"Penn National is a very large entity with the ability to spend a tremendous amount of money," said Aaron Meisner, chairman of Stop Slots Maryland. "There is no question they're going to have a very big impact."

Lawmakers included Cecil County in the gambling legislation in hopes of stopping Maryland residents from leaving the state to gamble at Delaware's slots parlors.

"It's an ideal location," said John K. Burkley II, who is marketing the retail portion of the project for Stewart Associates. "It's much more than the slots. The slots are going to bring the people there."

Perryville Mayor Jim L. Eberhardt said the proposed complex, plans for which have not been formally submitted for government review, would provide a needed economic boost and would have little impact on residents. He said the site's river views and nearby waterside attractions would make it an ideal location for tourists.

"It's a fantastic view," he said. "I think it could be very beneficial."

If voters approve the referendum, Penn National would have to apply for a state license before it could begin operating. The law requires any Cecil site to be located within two miles of I-95 and to be properly zoned.

William Clark Manlove, president of the Cecil County Commissioners, said he has heard rumors about a possible competing location in Elkton but added that Perryville is the only known contender.

"I come from an end of the county where our major industry is horses," Manlove said. "They are expecting to get revenues from slots. I realistically support it. I think the majority of the board does, but I don't speak for them."

He said he believes Perryville, not the county, would have to shepherd the project through proper zoning approvals.

The Rev. Dennis Watson, associate pastor of the Pleasant View Baptist Church in Port Deposit, said he and others in Cecil County intend to fight the referendum to make sure the project never gets that far. The Maryland General Assembly and Gov. Martin O'Malley approved the plan to let voters decide the fate of slots last year as part of their efforts to balance the state budget.

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