Backers of slots parlor in city ask more time

Developers say project is still on track despite missing self-imposed deadlines

December 11, 2009|By Julie Bykowicz and Laura Smitherman | Baltimore Sun reporters

Developers angling to build a casino in downtown Baltimore assured the state slots commission Thursday that the project is still on track, even though they have yet to pay $19.5 million in required licensing fees or reveal their mystery investor.

The Baltimore City Entertainment Group had promised to wire the money and submit detailed plans to state officials by the close of business Thursday, but neither arrived.

Instead, Donald C. Fry, chairman of the slots commission, said the Baltimore developers sent a brief letter asking for a "reasonable extension" of their self-imposed deadline and indicating that they are in "advanced negotiations" with a potential investor.

Commissioners have warned that they might toss out the group's application if they aren't convinced that the developers are moving forward on the seemingly stalled project.

"We have indicated on a regular basis that we have been growing increasingly impatient with respect to this proposal," Fry said. "At this stage, we have not made a decision to grant an extension. That's a decision we'll have to reach."

Commissioners had hoped to wrap up their work by the end of year on the four applications for licenses; they have approved three other casino licenses in Cecil and Anne Arundel counties and on the Eastern Shore, and have only Baltimore left to consider.

Thursday's request for more time came a week before the year's final scheduled meeting of slots commissioners.

Headed by a Canadian homebuilder with no casino experience, the Baltimore City Entertainment Group has said it wants to develop an entertainment destination called "Celebration" near the sports stadiums. The Russell Street site would include a casino with 3,750 slots machines.

Representatives of the group have for months referred to, but not named, an investor who would help pay the licensing fee and the legally required $187.5 million capital investment. In February, when casino applications were due, the Baltimore group paid $3 million in licensing fees for 500 machines, in what was considered a place-holder bid.

The group has been tight-lipped about the specifics of its plans.

Sandy Hillman, a public relations consultant hired by the Baltimore City Entertainment Group, said Thursday that she has "literally no information. I have not spoken to the client today."

Toronto-based Michael Moldenhauer, who has a 93 percent financial stake in the Baltimore slots parlor, did not return phone calls or e-mails Thursday.

Reached Wednesday evening, he said he could not disclose details about the mystery investor or other potential partners "out of respect for the process."

He said that information, when it becomes available, would come from the state slots commission.

Asked whether his group would meet its self-imposed deadline the next day, Moldenhauer replied, "Our lawyers are working aggressively to get things completed."

Some of the seven politically appointed slots commissioners, as well as state and local elected officials, have expressed frustration with the Baltimore group's delays and lack of communication.

The developers had promised to pay the state in September, and when that date passed, said the money would arrive shortly after Baltimore officials approved a land deal for the site. That happened Oct. 21.

"We've been given these moving deadlines for the last couple of months, and this is supposed to be it," said commission member Robert R. Neall, a former state senator. "I've been disappointed before, so I'm not extremely optimistic."

Sen. George W. Della, a Baltimore Democrat who represents the area where the casino would be built, said, "There's nothing anybody can do but sit around and wait. The ball's in their court."

Della said he opposed slots but wants the voter-approved program to succeed.

"There is a lot at stake here," Della said of the Baltimore site, noting the taxes, fees and jobs a casino would generate. "Should they not come through, it's back to square one again, and I would hate to see that happen."

First Deputy Mayor Andrew B. Frank said that city officials joined the entertainment group's request for more time.

"We acknowledge and appreciate that the Commission has shown great patience," he wrote in an e-mail to The Baltimore Sun. "We believe that it is in the city's and state's interest to give BCEG additional time to complete its due diligence."

Baltimore City Councilman Edward Reisinger, whose district includes the casino site, said he has been frustrated that the process has taken this long, noting that the city fast-tracked approval of the zoning. "I'm really concerned," he said. "If it were up to me, I would say, 'Look, we can't keep playing this game on and on.' "

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