On slots: A deal's a deal, baby

National Harbor would be a great location for a casino, but that's not the deal Maryland voters OK'd

May 09, 2012|Dan Rodricks

The approach to National Harbor, where three highways meet on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, is pretty much a wow, with the arched 18-story atrium of a massive convention hotel its centerpiece. National Harbor is a still-new resort town on a slope overlooking the big river, with six hotels, upscale shops, restaurants, condominiums, marinas and a busy schedule of events that attract healthy crowds on weekends. David Cordish must look at Nat Harbor and wish he'd thought of it.

Or maybe he wishes the place had been available as a location for gambling four years ago, when Maryland voters approved the return of slot machines to the state. Mr. Cordish might have been the one pushing a casino there today.

I mean, let's be honest: If you were a savvy developer of entertainment venues, with deep pockets, and you had the choice, where would you build a casino — on a mall parking lot in the middle of suburbia or at a 350-acre waterfront resort and conference center that shouts to drivers on the interstate: "Look at me, baby, I'm fabulous"?

Milton Peterson, chairman of the company that owns National Harbor, says he has no interest in building a "slots barn or slots parlor" but rather something that "would exude class." Given what he's built so far, you can believe it — a casino for one-percenters and conventioneers.

National Harbor sits at the western edge of Prince George's County, south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, and Rushern Baker, the county executive, supports a plan to build a $1 billion hotel-casino there. He has asked the Maryland General Assembly to ask Maryland voters — at referendum, perhaps as early as this November — to approve the expansion of slots and table games into Prince George's.

There's no doubt that National Harbor would be a primo place for a high-roller casino, and I suspect that David Cordish suffers a little location envy.

But that's not why he opposes the expansion of gambling there. Hard as it is to imagine, in this crummy business of casinos and getting people to throw their money away, a principle is at stake, and it goes like this: A deal's a deal, baby.

This was the deal:

In the hopes of raising much-needed revenue for public schools and our sagging thoroughbred-related economy, Maryland voters agreed to allow several thousand slot machines throughout the state. That was in 2008. A majority of voters approved a constitutional amendment authorizing slots at five locations: in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties and in Baltimore. David Cordish came along, played by the rules we established, and put up his millions to stake a claim on 4,750 slot machines in Anne Arundel County; he picked busy Arundel Mills as his location and, after fighting off local resistance, he now promises to open one of the largest slots casinos in the nation at 10 p.m. on June 6.

Mr. Cordish jumped at the opportunity because he understood what Maryland voters had authorized: no slots locations any further south than Anne Arundel County. That meant no competition in Howard, Prince George's or Montgomery counties; nothing in Charles, Calvert or St. Mary's. He also knew that he could draw customers from the District and from Northern Virginia. So he agreed to the state's terms — a 67 percent tax on his take at Maryland Live!

Change the ground rules now and allow a casino in Prince George's County, essentially behind Mr. Cordish's back, and the man has every right to cry foul.

So that's one reason Marylanders who approved Question 2 on the 2008 ballot should be wary of a special session of the General Assembly just to expand gambling beyond the locations we've already authorized.

Here's another: Not all of the slots casinos are up and running yet, and there's no guarantee they'll be successful.

It still remains to be seen how Mr. Cordish's Maryland Live! and the large casino planned for the southern edge of Baltimore, near the stadium complex, are going to co-exist. Between the two, about 12 miles apart, there will be 8,500 gambling machines. We first ought to see if those places entice a sufficient number of people to throw their money away on slots before expanding this crummy business to National Harbor.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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