'Now We Go To Work,' Cordish Says

Developer Confident About Arundel Mills Casino's Future As Opponents, Rivals Voice Determination To Keep Fighting

December 23, 2009|By Julie Bykowicz and Laura Smitherman | Julie Bykowicz and Laura Smitherman,julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com and Laura.Smitherman@baltsun.com

Developer David Cordish wasted no time after overcoming perhaps his biggest obstacle to building a slots emporium at Arundel Mills mall - winning zoning approval Monday night from a County Council that had avoided voting on it for 10 months.

He said he filed paperwork Tuesday to begin the permitting process for the 4,750-machine facility and plans to start construction by the fall with the hope of opening a year later.

"Now we go to work," Cordish said, speaking from his office at Baltimore's Power Plant, one of his company's projects. Cordish also expressed confidence in his bid to buy two Maryland horse racing tracks and said he would work to reinvigorate that flagging industry, in part with profits from his Arundel Mills casino.

The Baltimore-based developer said he was "not worried at all" about a coalition that has organized to block his project. Nearby residents and officials in the horse-racing industry have vowed to fight him in court and, by amassing signatures, to overturn the zoning approval.

Racing against a 45-day deadline that began when the county executive signed the zoning legislation into law on Tuesday, opponents say their lawyers are drafting a petition to put the zoning bill to voter referendum in the November 2010 election.

They need 19,000 signatures of county residents but cannot start until the board of elections signs off on the petition, which Rob Annicelli, a leader of the opposition to slots, said might not happen until after Christmas.

He said he believes opponents have a "good chance" of stopping Cordish through the petition effort.

And the owners of Laurel Park racetrack, which competed for the sole Anne Arundel County slots license, recently filed a protest of the state slots commission's decision to disqualify them for failing to pay millions of dollars in required fees.

The commission licensed Cordish earlier this month to operate what would be the largest of Maryland's five voter-approved slot-machine facilities. Two smaller slots parlors could open next year, and two projects, including one in Baltimore, must be rebid.

County Executive John R. Leopold, after signing the zoning bill, said the Cordish project would put people to work and help the county plug a $93 million budget shortfall.

He said he hopes Cordish's opponents fail.

"Obviously, I'm going to do everything in my power to protect the fiscal health of this county, and that means protecting the law that I signed," Leopold said.

Cordish discounted the opposition, saying the "overwhelming majority" of county residents support his project. He said he verified with the county planning and zoning department that the efforts to stop the project will not impede the permitting process. County officials said they are unsure how long that process will take.

The pros and cons of Cordish's vision have been debated for months.

Cordish contends it would create thousands of construction and permanent jobs, and he maintains that the mall, which draws 14 million visitors annually, would be the most lucrative site for slots in the county. His casino could generate more than $500 million a year, according to state analysts, with more than half of that revenue going to fund state education programs and horse racing.

But officials with the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Laurel Park, warn that putting a casino at the mall would spell financial ruin for the racetrack, which they say needs slot machines to stay viable.

The Jockey Club said it will provide financial backing and manpower to support the county ballot drive.

Other opponents of the mall casino have raised concerns about increased traffic and crime.

While about 60 percent of Anne Arundel County voters approved the legalization of slots in a statewide referendum in November 2008, opponents contend that voters assumed slots would be installed at Laurel Park and didn't understand that a casino could be built at the mall.

The track's owner, Magna Entertainment Corp., filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year and will auction Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course, the Preakness Stakes and other holdings on Jan. 8.

Several bidders for Magna's assets - other than Cordish - also have vowed to fight to bring slots to Laurel Park, a prospect that dims as Cordish moves forward because only one slots license can be awarded in the county. In fact, the county zoning approval could prompt several bidders to drop out of the running, said the Jockey Club's president, Tom Chuckas.

Cordish said his bid for Magna's holdings reflects his desire to keep the tracks intact. If he wins the auction, Cordish said, he will oversee a "renaissance" of horse racing, financed by state slots profits and his own money. He called Magna's reign over the industry "degrading."

"We're pretty good at taking failed projects and turning them around," he said, pointing to his development of the Power Plant at the Inner Harbor and the nearby Power Plant Live! entertainment complex as examples. He said he is not interested in trying to move his casino license to Laurel Park, as some state leaders have suggested.

Cordish described his Arundel slots project as on schedule. Called Maryland Live!, the casino and a parking garage of about 4,000 spaces will go up on a surface lot across from the food court at Arundel Mills. The facility will be completely separate from the mall and will not be visible from the main roads, Cordish said.

He said he'll invest at least $300 million in the casino and plans to have top-tier restaurants and entertainment in addition to the slot machines.

Cordish said he is not ruling out erecting a temporary gambling site, as he did while developing Indiana Live! last year outside Indianapolis.

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