If you wanted to play blackjack, poker and roulette on the East Coast, you used to have to drive to Atlantic City. Now you just have to drive to Maryland's borders.
That short trip is what Baltimore charter company Superior Tours is betting on. It has begun weekly trips to the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in West Virginia, about a 90-minute drive west of Baltimore. Superior Tours packed two buses for its inaugural trip to Charles Town this month.
"We've been taking people to Atlantic City for 16 years," said Marc Komins, an executive vice president at Superior Tours. "This was half the distance and half the price, so I thought our Atlantic City customers would enjoy going somewhere for a shorter day for half the money."
While Maryland's slots-only program flounders amid delays and legal battles, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware are expanding the types of gambling that they allow. A number of casinos offering slots and horse racing just across the Maryland border started table games this summer.
Charles Town is promoting its new Hollywood-themed casino with a new name and redesigned space that features 85 tables for games such as mini-baccarat and Pai Gow poker and a 27-table poker room. Delaware Park and Dover Downs rolled out table games in late June, along with Pennsylvania's casinos, which added poker, blackjack and craps this past week.
The rebranded and expanded casinos have provided an economic boost as they draw a new crop of gamblers who not only spend money at the tables but eat in nearby restaurants and spend the night in area hotels. Even businesses in Maryland — such as Superior Tours — are trying to cash in.
The increased competition recently spurred New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to pledge to revive Atlantic City, which has been hit hard by the recession. He wants to overhaul the seaside destination.
With the novelty of table games in West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania, casino operators say they are seeing more gamblers and increased revenue. That comes after many casinos, which depend on discretionary spending, had suffered through the economic downturn.
Charles Town has experienced a 10 percent rise in attendance since adding table games July 1, said Al Britton, the casino's general manager. Delaware Park has reported a slight increase this month in slots revenue, said Andrew Gentile, the casino's chief operating officer.
"It would be the first month in 25 months that slots revenue is up year over year," Gentile said. "Table games have brought a lot of energy back to the slots floor."
Ron Marcus, who owns two hotels near the Charles Town casino, is so optimistic that he's planning to build two new hotels and to expand his Turf Motel adjacent to the Hollywood Casino.
Bookings at his hotels are up as much as 30 percent, with phones ringing "off the hook," said Marcus, president of the Jefferson County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
To attract customers, Marcus has put together several lodging packages, including a "Why fly to Vegas" weekday special with a nightly rate of $99.99 per person. Takers get a $20 voucher each for the casino and restaurant and free steak and eggs.
"These people are going to come," said Marcus, who pushed for years to add table games at West Virginia casinos. "Why drive two hours to Atlantic City when you could drive an hour to come here?"
As gambling expands in West Virginia and Delaware, Maryland has yet to open its first slots parlor. The Hollywood Casino in Perryville, operated by Penn National Gaming, which also owns the Charles Town facility, is scheduled to open in late September.
But other slots projects face major roadblocks. In the past week, Maryland's highest court ruled that a referendum challenging the zoning for a large slots casino in Anne Arundel County should be placed on the ballot in November. That decision casts uncertainty over the 4,750-machine slots facility at Arundel Mills mall proposed by the Baltimore-based Cordish Cos.
Some Maryland lawmakers favor legalizing table games to put the state on even competitive footing with neighboring states, but that would require legislation and statewide approval of a constitutional amendment. This year, the General Assembly rejected a proposal to legalize table games at Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County, and the bankrupt horse track that closed this month.
The ability of a regional economy to capitalize on the addition of table games at casinos — and the spillover effect of gamblers' spending at nearby businesses — depends on a number of factors, according to William R. Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Those factors include the proximity of other tourist attractions and whether visitors choose to stay overnight or make it a day trip. Fierce competition among casinos clustered in a region can diminish returns, he said.