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When Maryland's first slots casino opened a year ago, it faced some tough odds. Even with a strategic location just off Interstate 95, motorists who didn't know it was there were unlikely to discover it.
Hollywood Casino Perryville, located in the northeastern corner of the state, isn't visible from the tree-lined highway. That might be about to change in a really, really big way.
This week, Perryville's commissioners will try to resolve a pesky issue that has split their town of 3,670 residents: whether to allow the casino to erect an illuminated sign on its property so tall that it would be visible from the interstate.
At a proposed height of 175 feet, the sign would loom larger than most of the nation's lighthouses. The debate has touched several nerves in this once-thriving rail town on the banks of the Susquehanna River, which in less prosperous times has welcomed the casino as a source of much-needed employment.
"Some people say they don't want to be known as the town with the casino, but we need to face reality: That's what we are," said Michael A. Dawson, one of the town commissioners who plans to vote for the sign. "I don't buy the argument that it takes away from the aesthetic beauty of Perryville. The last thing I want is another broken-down, boarded up business here."
Michelle Linkey, a commissioner on the other side of the debate, said she understands the casino's desire to lure more customers but said the pylon sign would conflict with Perryville's goal of reducing "visual clutter." And she worries that it will tower above too many residential areas.
"I wouldn't want to be sitting in my back yard having a picnic and look up and see the sign," Linkey said.
The casino, one of two in Maryland, has generated more than $100 million in gross revenue since it opened in late September 2010, about on par with expectations for its size and location. Nearly half of the take goes to the state for education programs.
Penn National Gaming, one of the largest gambling companies in the country, owns the 1,500-machine casino and is trying to bring slots to Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County.
Marc DeLeo, the casino's director of marketing, said he's convinced that the proceeds in Perryville could improve significantly with more visibility. State officials chose the location hoping it would grab gamblers headed to a casino not far across the state line in Delaware.
A study has shown that about 82,000 cars a day travel past the I-95 exit to Hollywood Casino, DeLeo said, and billboards are not allowed along that stretch of the highway. DeLeo said he is grateful for about a dozen small signs — some of them also advertising other attractions — that the state has placed on I-95 and other approaches.
DeLeo compared the sign the casino wants to build to "the big M" that McDonald's uses to advertise its restaurants.
"It's very classic-looking," DeLeo said. "It's not blinking or anything like that."
Among his allies is a state commission that picks slots sites in Maryland. Donald C. Fry, the panel's chairman, told reporters last week that he is planning to send a letter of support for the sign to Perryville in advance of Tuesday's vote.
As part of its lobbying effort, the casino floated a trial balloon last month — quite literally.
A hot-air balloon rose 175 feet above the casino property, DeLeo said, and was photographed from several ground-level sites around Perryville. The casino superimposed a sketch of its desired sign and showed the mayor and four town commissioners pictures of what residents could expect.
Some were more impressed than others.
"In most of the communities where you can see it, it's not a full frontal view," Linkey said. "It's more of a side view. But you can still see it."