The Hollywood Casino Perryville — the first casino in Maryland in decades — has drawn more than 21,000 visitors since opening to the public Monday, casino officials said Thursday.
The casino's 1,500 slot machines have been a regional draw, they said, noting that cars in the parking lot have carried license plates from Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Jersey and other areas. They did not release statistics on the amount of money that has been wagered or paid out in winnings.
Gov. Martin O'Malley toured the casino and greeted gamblers at a scheduled grand opening held Thursday, though the doors had opened to the public several days earlier. He said the casino is already attracting tourists and "preventing dollars that used to fly across the border from leaving."
Officials expect casinos to eventually generate thousands of jobs for Marylanders and contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to the state. They hope the 34,000-square-foot casino in Perryville — just west of Interstate 95, off Route 222 — will lure Marylanders who have been gambling out of state, and will attract travelers along the highway.
"Eighty-two thousand cars a day pass the Perryville exit, except now people in those vehicles have the option of stopping and enjoying slots in Maryland," said Himbert Sinopoli, the casino's general manager, during a ribbon-cutting ceremony that was moved to the casino's Epic Buffet restaurant because of rain.
Jerry Shetzler of Bear, Del., said he was likely to return to the Perryville casino. "We make the rounds everywhere. It's a nice place with a lot of new machines," the 58-year-old said, holding a cup of black coffee in one hand and playing slots with the other. He had recently spent a week in Las Vegas.
Lauri Oyinlade, 49, of Baltimore was less sure about a return visit. She came with her daughter to check out the slot machines and see how they pay out, but expected to continue her periodic trips to Delaware casinos — some are only 30 miles farther than Perryville. "I like to drive, so distance is not a problem," she said as she played at a penny machine.
Slot machine gambling was banned in the 1960s in Maryland. Since then, casinos have been built in neighboring Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia, attracting many Marylanders. Some of those casinos also offer table games such as blackjack and roulette, which are not allowed in Maryland.
After years of debate, Marylanders supported a 2008 referendum to approve slots at five locations in the state, but the only other casino close to opening is at the Ocean Downs racetrack on the Eastern Shore. Plans for slots parlors in Baltimore and at Arundel Mills mall have become entangled in legal challenges; the state has been unable to identify an acceptable bidder to operate one at Rocky Gap in Western Maryland.
"I don't blame anybody for being against slots at the mall," O'Malley said. "I prefer to see them at racetracks. I think it's important to do this right. I don't think we should be bullied into accepting slots at the mall."
The Perryville casino got a test run Saturday with a group of about 1,400 invited guests. That event went so well that the public opening was moved up to Monday, ahead of Thursday's scheduled grand opening.
The governor and others praised the swift construction of the $97.5 million casino, which opened just two years after the slots referendum. "For four long years, we were locked in gridlock about slots," O'Malley said, with people displaying "a lot more partisanship than citizenship."
Tim Wilmott, president and CEO of casino owner Penn National Gaming, pledged that the company would be a good corporate citizen in Perryville and Cecil County. The company operates 16 other casinos around the country.
For now, the most obvious economic impact of the casino is the 350 jobs it has provided. Eighty percent of the workers are from Cecil or Harford counties.
Perryville Mayor Jim Eberhardt said he hoped the casino would spur development of hotels and retail in the area. "It is not too often we get to welcome a new industry to an area — especially an industry that hires 350 people right off the bat."
His wife, Ann Marie, said they have celebrated New Year's Eve at a Delaware casino for the past four to five years. She added, "Probably now we'll come here."