State's first slots parlor to open ahead of schedule

Perryville casino could be running by late October

May 26, 2010|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

Construction of an Art-Deco style slots parlor in Cecil County is moving quickly enough that the state's first casino will likely open ahead of schedule, a rare bright spot in what has been a slow-moving process to date.

Meanwhile, though, surrounding states have moved to enhance their gaming programs, with Delaware this week and Pennsylvania in early July allowing table games like black jack and roulette. Such games are already permitted in West Virginia.

"Delaware has upped the ante," said Peter M. Carlino, the chairman of the board and CEO of Penn National, which owns the Cecil County casino. Expanded gaming in nearby states will make it more difficult to attract people to the Maryland casino, he said.

The Hollywood Casino Perryville will have 1,500 video lottery machines that will start accepting their first coins in late October if all goes as planned, according to Penn National. State analysts initially assumed that the location would be one of the last to open, putting its start date at August 2011.

"It is being built. It is a wonderful thing," said Gov. Martin O'Malley, who toured the site Tuesday afternoon as part of his statewide tour of businesses that are hiring.

The casino is expected to net $79 million a year for the state once it is up and running, creating a revenue stream desperately needed to fill the state's depleted coffers.

Table games create higher-paying jobs, Carlino said, but can be costly for a casino to offer. The appeal from a business perspective is that they tend to draw a different type of customer — young men — than slots, toward which older women gravitate, he said. Having a combination of slots and tables games helps a casino attract couples who might have different gambling preferences, he said.

Still, he said he has no immediate plans to lobby for table games. "After people get comfortable, there is a chance," he said.

The governor repeated Tuesday his opposition to expanding gaming options, saying voters approved slots as a "moderate" program. The General Assembly approved a study this year to examine what impact table games in other states will have on Maryland's program. Any gaming expansion here would need voter approval and could not happen until 2012 at the soonest.

When complete, the Cecil casino will evoke the golden age of Hollywood, said Himbert Sinopoli, the general manager. The beige-colored building has a grand marquee at the entrance and opens into a single cavernous room. Old-timey movie posters will adorn the walls.

"I can almost hear the 'ding, ding, ding,'" said O'Malley, standing on the vast concrete expanse inside the building that will one day be the gaming floor.

The casino owners hope the location — at the MD-275 exit off I-95 — will attract curious commuters or frequent travelers. "We want people to just stop in," Sinopoli said.

The casino is one of five that voters approved for gaming in 2008. Another site, in Western Maryland, attracted no qualified bidders, and the two largest facilities, in Baltimore and Anne Arundel County, are mired in legal problems. Construction problems are delaying a fifth, in Ocean City, though state officials say it will open in December.

The delays have prompted criticism from O'Malley's political opponent, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, who is running to reclaim the office. He shook his head last week when asked about the status of Maryland's slots program. "I gotta laugh, or I cry," Ehrlich said.

He said the state's high tax on casino owners — 67 percent — has driven away would-be developers. He had pushed for slots during his successful campaign 2002 but could not get a measure through the General Assembly as governor. "Eight years later, we've lost billions of dollars," he said. "It has been an absolute mess. It's been political negligence."

Carlino said he isn't mounting a public push for a cut in the rate — though he stressed that it was one of the highest in the country. "It makes it very difficult to run a profitable business," he said.

O'Malley said he hopes the rate is "economically viable."

"Once we have all of the locations up and running, we will have a better read on that," he said.

O'Malley declined to say whether the status of the slots program would be a significant campaign issue but blamed its slow pace on the frozen credit markets in 2009, when the state was seeking bidders.

But additional state preparation is still required. The Maryland lottery intends to ask for approval to buy the slots machines for Cecil County next week, its director, Stephen Martino, said.

Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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