Making the hard call

Our view: Md.'s slots commission made the necessary decision to reject a Baltimore casino bid

now let's hope the Arundel council follows up with a vote on Arundel Mills

December 21, 2009

The Maryland slots licensing commission made a difficult decision Thursday when it voted to reject the bid for a Baltimore casino near the stadiums, but it was the right one. Baltimore officials who cried over it - in one case, literally - are seriously misguided. The Baltimore City Entertainment Group, which brought the proposal, had done nothing but delay both in providing a licensing fee and plans for its site, and the decision to cut the bid off now may have sped up the process of getting slots revenue to the city and state, rather than slowing it down.

The decision does, however, put even more pressure on the Anne Arundel County Council, which is scheduled to vote Monday on a proposed zoning change that would allow the state's largest and most lucrative slots parlor to be built near Arundel Mills Mall. Fortunately, it appears that the council may finally be on the path toward some resolution - the decision Thursday night to replace outgoing, anti-slots Councilman Josh Cohen with pro-slots Democrat Charles W. Ferrar may presage a final resolution to the matter.

It has been more than a year since Maryland voters solidly approved slots at the ballot box, and it's understandable that the fits and starts with which the process has moved forward would be frustrating to many. But as far as gambling expansions go, there are encouraging signs in how matters are progressing in Maryland. Three licenses have already been awarded, and two of them are on track to lead to at least temporary facilities in Worcester and Cecil counties by the summer and fall, respectively. Contrast that with Pennsylvania, which took years to get its slots program off the ground amid scandal and corruption.

There have been worrisome moments in Maryland in which it appeared that well-connected and well-financed players were trying to game the system to their advantage, but the licensing commission has played things straight. The fact that it rejected the Baltimore bid, which included former Maryland Democratic Party Chairman (and ally to Gov. Martin O'Malley) Michael Cryor as one of its partners, is a testament to the independence with which the commission has approached its duty.

That's what makes Mayor Sheila Dixon's puling after the vote so inappropriate. She complained that "I'm not sure if these facilities are a true priority for the state." Quite the contrary. The state's finances are even more dependent on slots revenue than the city's are, and the licensing commission has been more transparent in its concerns and frustrations with the process than anyone. To her credit, City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake is backing up the commission and urging it to re-bid within 90 days, a worthy goal.

What forced the commission to make its decision was the consistent inability of the city bidder to meet any of the deadlines it imposed for itself. The fact that it showed up at Thursday's meeting with a tentative commitment for financing was unimpressive. Without the additional $19.5 million in licensing fees in hand or a plan for its expansion from an initial 500-machine proposal to a more robust 3,750-machine casino, the commission could have no confidence the deal would ever be done.

There could be a silver lining to this setback. In the first round of bidding for slots licenses, the Baltimore City Entertainment Group was the only bidder for Baltimore's license, likely owing to the dismal state of the economy at the time. Things have improved since then. And now that the city has negotiated a deal once and has decided what parcels are available and what terms it will accept, the commission can include those details in the request for bids. That way, the process should be faster and involve less uncertainty for bidders.

For the moment, though, all eyes now turn to the Anne Arundel bid by the Cordish Cos. That proposal has the potential to be among the most profitable slots sites in the country, and the company has strong experience in developing mixed-use entertainment venues, including slots parlors. It has the money to move forward immediately with its proposal, and it has demonstrated a willingness to work with the county to mitigate concerns over traffic, parking and security. Cordish's plan would maximize revenues for the state, the county and the horse racing industry. It deserves the council's approval.

Readers respond
Have you been to Arundel Mills Mall lately? Traffic and parking are terrible, and the Cordish plan does nothing to alleviate the existing problems, much less improve them. The County Council should consider other locations that are better suited for a slots facility.

Douglas Perry

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