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'Games have begun' at Md.'s first casino

September 27, 2010
  • Workers put the finishing touches on slot machines at Hollywood Casino in Perryville, Md., on Friday, Sept. 24. Maryland's first casino opened ahead of schedule on Monday, Sept. 27, nearly two years after voters approved a constitutional amendment legalizing slot machines.
Associated Press,

PERRYVILLE, Md. (AP) -- Maryland's first casino opened ahead of schedule on Monday about 40 miles north of Baltimore next to Interstate 95, nearly two years after voters approved a constitutional amendment legalizing slot machines.

The opening of Penn National Gaming's Hollywood Casino at Perryville, which employs 350 people, marks what state officials hope will be a bright spot for the state's finances after years of tortuous debate over whether to legalize slot machines as neighboring states reaped the benefits of their own casinos that have been drawing Maryland gamblers for years.

"The games have begun at Perryville," said Marc DeLeo, the director of marketing, said shortly after the 8 a.m. opening.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, who urged the Legislature in 2007 to push the slots issue on to the ballot for voters to decide after years of gridlock among lawmakers, has been eager to get the machines turned on to help ease a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. He is scheduled to visit on Thursday, the day the casino had been set to open.

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"We are in a hyper-competitive gaming environment," Maryland Lottery Director Stephen Martino said after signing the casino's operation license Sunday. "We want to expedite operations to begin creating more jobs and generating revenue for the state."

The walls are decorated with large movie posters to underscore the Hollywood theme around 34,000 square feet of floor space with 1,500 slot machines. The facility boosts some of the flashiest slot machines ever designed, including some that combine old-school spinning wheels with vividly colorful computer graphics and high-tech sound systems.

Penn National officials are hopeful the location just off the interstate will bring in anyone 21 and over.

"We look at our location as a key point for us," DeLeo said, expressing confidence the new venue will attract Maryland gamblers who now head north to Delaware, where a casino and racetrack is about 30 miles north. "We're seconds off of I-95, and our research has showed us that there's about 82,000 cars a day that pass by here."

The new facility has two restaurants, including a buffet with seafood and a separate grill. There is a bar with video poker. A mix of big band and classic rock music mingles with the electronic whir of the slot machines. An open design makes it easier for people to look all around the venue.

"We sized the casino floor for a lady of about five-foot-two in stature, and I think relative to other casinos you might visit you'll notice it's a lot more open," said John Sanchez, vice president of operations.

While there are no table games like blackjack and craps, the casino has six large machines where five people can sit and play video blackjack, roulette and three-card poker. Wagers at blackjack can range from $5 to $250 a hand.

The Hollywood Casino is the first of five potential casinos allowed under Maryland law. A second slots facility near Ocean City at the Ocean Downs horse racing track with 800 slot machines is scheduled to open in December.

A constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2008 authorizes Maryland to have up to 15,000 slot machines at five locations. The other three potential sites for slot machines are in limbo.

While the state has estimated it could generate as much as $660 million in 2012 once all 15,000 machines are operational, critics believe the estimate was overstated to begin with, and they contend it has become even more unrealistic during tough financial times in a casino market of increasing competition.

Aaron Meisner, who is the former chairman of Stop Slots Maryland, said the fact that only two sites are expected to open this year illustrates that the plan has been a fiasco. He also said the state can expect to experience the social ills that come with gambling, and he doesn't believe Maryland will make nearly as much money as previously estimated.

"We're closing in on 2011 and that number looks more and more ridiculous every day," Meisner said.

The Perryville site is estimated to gross $116 million in the first full year of operations, according to state estimates.

A proposal to build the state's largest casino with 4,750 machines next to a shopping mall in Anne Arundel County is facing a referendum vote in November, giving voters a chance to nix the project and sending plans for the state's largest casino back to the drawing board.

A state slots commission rejected a bid on the Baltimore site in December by the Baltimore City Entertainment Group, which has a hearing scheduled before the Maryland State Board of Contract Appeals on Tuesday to try to get the bid reconsidered.

The site at Rocky Gap doesn't have a bidder. Lawmakers passed legislation this year in hopes of creating greater incentives. Now, if a slot machine operator decides to buy the state-subsidized lodge at the site, the operator would receive 35.5 percent of gambling revenues for five years, instead of the 33 percent allowed at the other four locations.

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