Maryland's first gambling parlor could open by Memorial Day, a state commission said Wednesday as it granted permission for 800 slot machines at an Eastern Shore harness racing track.
After decades of debate about gambling and serious efforts to legalize it that began seven years ago under a former governor, Montgomery County developer William M. Rickman Jr. won a license for a slots emporium at Ocean Downs in Worcester County, just outside Ocean City.
Rickman, who runs the profitable Delaware Park Horse Racing and Slots, said he will now seek a building permit to renovate a 34,000-square-foot facility to house the video lottery terminals.
The slots location commission's unanimous decision Wednesday should signal to Maryland residents who approved a gambling referendum last November but doubted they'd ever see slots parlors that "something is clearly going to happen," said commission Chairman Donald C. Fry.
He said the panel expects to vote by the end of October on a license for slots in Cecil County, another of the five locations authorized by last year's vote. Penn National Gaming Inc. of Pennsylvania, which owns Charles Town Races and Slots in West Virginia, has proposed a 500-machine site there.
But it could be months before permission to construct more high-profile parlors in Baltimore and Anne Arundel County is granted.
The largest project, a 4,750-machine development by Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. near Arundel Mills Mall, is caught in a local zoning battle. Fry said the commission could approve the license before the Anne Arundel County Council approves the zoning, but "that's not our preferred method."
And commission members learned Wednesday that it will be November, at the earliest, before they can review financial and personal background checks on the Baltimore City Entertainment Group, which wants to build a slots parlor near the sports stadiums downtown.
The group, which includes a Canadian builder with no gambling experience, paid an initial licensing fee for 500 terminals and promised it would expand its bid to 3,750. Though the group's self-imposed deadline to pay the additional up-front fee was Wednesday, Fry said the commission had not received more money. The Baltimore City Entertainment Group, with the city's backing, also wants to change the location of the casino, something the commission would have to approve.
Buddy Roogow, director of the state lottery, which regulates state gambling and is conducting background checks on the licensing applicants, said information from the Baltimore group has been slow to arrive. Fry said later that "some of the proposals are a little simpler" than the one in the city, noting that Rickman, Penn National and Cordish, which recently opened a "racino" in Indiana, are "known commodities."
"There may be some loose ends dealing with Baltimore," Fry said.
Roogow said background checks on Rickman and Ocean Enterprise, the limited liability corporation that will run Ocean Downs, revealed no problems.
He characterized Rickman as "extremely successful" and "certainly financially stable." Rickman's Delaware park has been profitable for the past five years, the period that was reviewed, and has "exceeded industry benchmarks," Roogow said.
Specific financial information and the viability of the proposal for Ocean Downs were discussed in a closed-door meeting Wednesday.
The commission's financial consultants calculated that the casino will employ 400 people and pay about $65 million in state gaming taxes when it is fully operational, which they project will be in 2013.
After winning the license, Rickman said he expects that most of the casino's customers will be vacationers from nearby Ocean City - an area he said is lacking in adult-oriented entertainment. He also has told the commission that he plans to add another 700 machines in the coming years, though he said he would not do so before turning a profit from the initial 800 machines.
Serious efforts to legalize gambling in Maryland date to former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s first days on the job in 2002, when he dismissed his predecessor's mantra, "No slots. No casinos. No exceptions." Voters approved a slots referendum in November 2008, authorizing a total of 15,000 at five specific locations across the state. Bids for the licenses were due Feb. 1 and have been under review by the politically appointed seven-member slots location commission since.
The process has been beset with unexpected twists. Bids for a site at Rocky Gap State Park in Western Maryland and a submission by Magna Entertainment Corp., the group that owns Laurel Park racetrack, were tossed out because the bidders did not submit the required initial licensing fees on time.
Despite promises of expansion, only half of the slot machines have been requested - at a time when Maryland lawmakers are counting on $600 million in annual slots-related tax revenue to partly fix a structural deficit in the coming years. Gambling operators must pay a 67 percent tax rate, one of the highest in the nation.
Rickman, who attended the commission meeting, said he at times wished he could "scrap the whole thing," calling the process leading to Wednesday's award "long and drawn-out."
Among the nail-biting moments: fear that lawmakers would "scrap the whole thing and start over" when the Maryland Jockey Club and Magna sued the state over the rejected Laurel bid. Key lawmakers envisioned casinos as a way to prop up the state's ailing horse racing industry.
When a reporter asked why Rickman appeared low-key after Wednesday's award, he replied, "Do you know how long this has taken?"