In about-face, entrepreneur seeks Arundel casino

January 13, 2009|By Laura Smitherman and Gadi Dechter | Laura Smitherman and Gadi Dechter and,laura.smitherman@baltsun.com and gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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A wealthy entrepreneur who denounced slot machines as the "cancer" of the horse-racing industry now wants to build a slots casino in Anne Arundel County - as a cure for Maryland's ailing racetracks.

Halsey Minor said in an interview yesterday that he still objects to installing slots at tracks and instead wants to develop a standalone casino with the proceeds funding his self-styled crusade to save horse racing. His bid for a slots license would directly compete with an anticipated proposal from Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns the Laurel Park track and has long sought slots to improve business there.

Minor's entry into the field of bidders comes as state officials are preparing to review proposals for the development of slots casinos, which are due Feb. 2. As part of that process, more than 80 representatives of potential bidders and other businesses with an interest in slots gathered for a conference yesterday at the Maryland Lottery Commission.

"This shows there's a great deal of interest," said Maryland Lottery Director Buddy Roogow, whose agency will have oversight of slots.

Maryland voters ratified a constitutional amendment last year to legalize 15,000 slot machines at five locations around the state. While several potential bidders have signaled their interest in developing the casinos - including the Cordish Cos., Penn National Gaming Inc. and Magna - some industry experts question whether the Maryland program will attract many interested parties because the state's tax rate on slots proceeds is among the highest in the nation.

Moreover, with the credit markets roiled by the recession, some companies might not be able to put together financing for a bid. Developers are expected to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the slots facilities, in addition to paying licensing fees.

Several at the conference yesterday questioned state officials about the kinds of slot machines that would be available. By law, the state will own or lease the machines. Roogow said the state would work with casino operators and obtain a mix of slots to make the program "as successful as possible."

Vincent Tagliabracci, a developer who has been a partner in casino operations in other states and last year formed Allegany Entertainment to invest in Maryland, attended the conference yesterday and said he is exploring a possible bid. But, he noted, the bid requirements including the tax rate "might not be to the benefit of most bidders and investors."

Minor, the horse-breeding son of a Baltimore native, was vague on details of his bid yesterday. The founder of CNET Networks, he is reportedly worth several hundred million dollars. Minor said his bid will include a partnership with an unnamed "top operator" to run the gambling business.

His proposal is a surprising about-face. In October, Minor campaigned against slots alongside Comptroller Peter Franchot, who put out a news release quoting the California venture capitalist vowing: "I'd rather go to jail than have slots."

Minor said his opposition is entirely consistent with his current bid for the Anne Arundel license.

"Part of my proposal is going to be an ironclad pledge to the state of Maryland that all profits from the slot machines will stay in Maryland," he said, "and will go to rebuilding the infrastructure of thoroughbred racing."

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