The gamble

State's budget hopes, Arundel Mills casino may ride on success of Cordish's new Indiana venture

March 15, 2009|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,gadi.dechter@baltimoresun.com

Shelbyville, Ind. -David Cordish hopes Marylanders wary of his plans for a casino at Arundel Mills mall will be seduced by the extravagant refinement of Indiana Live!, his firm's first developed-and-operated casino, where the Baltimore builder presided over a glittery grand opening Friday night.

A capacity crowd of 8,000 jammed the casino floor for hours. They stood in winding lines for access to corporate-branded restaurants such as a Maker's Mark steakhouse and glitzy nightclubs designed for the 233,000-square-foot facility, and clogged the highway in and out of Shelbyville, Ind., population 18,000.

Hundreds more stood outside in frigid temperatures for hours, determined to gain entry to the casino appointed with opulent touches like a white onyx bar and private lounges for big spenders. Night life promoter G.T. Pollard of Indianapolis described the venue as "10 times better" than offerings in Indianapolis.

Shelbyville Mayor Scott A. Furgeson, whose area has been hit hard by auto industry layoffs, said the $225 million casino is now the biggest employer in town. Maryland would be "foolish" not to welcome a Cordish casino with its proposed 4,750 slot machines, he said, lavishing praise on the company's money-is-no-object style of upscale development.

Money, of course, is the principal object of gambling operations. Even before the grand opening, the Cordish Cos. was pushing for tax breaks. Though Cordish executives raise their noses at the utilitarian "slots warehouse" design of their Indianapolis-area competition, Indiana Live! joined Hoosier Park in recent weeks to lobby the legislature for tens of millions in tax breaks, citing financial worries.

The general manager of Indiana Live!, which has been operating its 2,000 slots out of a temporary facility since getting its license last summer, told The Indianapolis Star this month that daily revenue-per-machine totals are about $100 less than the casino projected.

"The economics are significantly different than all of us thought," Mark Hemmerle told the newspaper. "The estimates just aren't bearing out."

In Maryland, Cordish's proposal for one of five slots licenses authorized by voters last year was the rare bullish response from casino operators, many of whom were scared off by high gambling taxes, a credit crunch, and a recession that has depressed the gambling economy.

With the recent disqualification of a plan to put slots at Laurel Park, the Cordish mall-side casino is the most likely candidate for Anne Arundel's gambling zone. The lackluster bids on the other sites could put more pressure on Arundel Mills to be successful, because state officials are counting on slots revenues to plug a structural budget deficit.

Given the brief history in Indiana, should Maryland taxpayers and lawmakers be worried that Cordish Cos. will demand tax breaks if it is awarded a license at Arundel Mills, where the 67 percent tax rate would be significantly higher than Indiana's?

"Not at all," insisted Cordish Cos. Gaming and Resorts Division president Joseph Weinberg, whose company has not been a visible lobbyist on the slots issue in Annapolis.

Edward D. Feigenbaum, publisher of Indiana Gaming Insight, a trade newsletter, said the proposed tax-relief bill in Indiana is being lobbied far more aggressively by Hoosier Park north of Indianapolis, the other so-called "racino" established by the legislature in 2007. Indiana Live! is adjacent to the Indiana Downs racetrack, more than 30 miles south of the capital city.

The Indiana legislature charged $250 million apiece for the two racino licenses when it expanded state gambling beyond riverboats. Those fees made the casino business "twice as expensive in Indiana" as it would be in Maryland, Weinberg said, straining to be heard over music at the Mosaic nightclub.

Meanwhile, on a raised seating area, Indianapolis scene-blogger Jesika Gunter, 25, surveyed the V.I.P. crowd being served by scantily clad waitresses and entertained by go-go dancers on a see-through catwalk above the bar. "I've been wanting a club like this in Indy," she said, sipping a pink-hued drink. "It reminds me of clubs in Miami or L.A."

One of the waitresses, Amanda Whittington, said she interviewed three times for the job and moved to nearby Greenwood in order to take it. "I was secure where I was but felt this was a better opportunity," said Whittington, 24, a single mother wearing high-heeled boots, a pin-striped vest and a "schoolgirl skirt" so short it would earn any real schoolgirl an afternoon in detention.

Down at the nickel slots corner of the gambling floor, Lily Waltz was lucky to find a seat at a machine. The 40-year-old waitress drove more than two hours to the "gorgeous" casino and said she'd be back, though she expressed irritation that many of the one-armed bandits were out of order.

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