National Harbor casino proposal gets unlikely ally in potential competitor


Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III is supporting a casino developers proposal for high-end gambling at Nation Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)
March 16, 2012

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) picked up an unlikely ally Friday in his push for a billion-dollar casino at National Harbor: the potential owner of a competing facility.

Representatives of Caesars Entertainment, the lead investor in a proposed casino in downtown Baltimore, told state lawmakers that the company supports legislation that would allow another casino in Maryland, even if it steals some customers.

Trevor Busche, vice president of corporate development for Caesars, said during a House hearing on the bill that he does not welcome the prospect of additional competition.

But Busche said the company wants “certainty in the marketplace.” And he said he likes several other provisions in the bill, including one that would allow table games in addition to the slot machines at all of the state’s casinos and another that would increase the share of proceeds that operators may keep to 40 percent from 33 percent.

The position of Caesars further scrambled the competing interests behind a bill that would facilitate the largest expansion of Maryland’s gambling program since lawmakers allowed five slots casinos in 2007.

Friday’s hearing also featured testimony from Baker and representatives of several other gaming companies with a stake in the outcome.

A Senate panel could vote on the legislation as early as next week and send it to the full chamber for consideration. The odds in the House appear longer.

“It’s something we want to look at very cautiously,” said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), a member of the Ways and Means Committee, which held Friday’s hearing. “We haven’t fully implemented what we approved in 2007.”

Of the state’s five planned casinos — which voters authorized in 2008 — only two have opened. The third — and by far the largest — is scheduled to debut in June at Arundel Mills mall in Anne Arundel County.

Joe Weinberg, president of the Cordish Cos., that project’s developer, testified that Maryland Live! would become the state’s largest taxpayer and made clear that, unlike Caesar’s, his company is “vehemently opposed” to a new competitor.

“These are not Starbucks,” Weinberg said. “You cannot put them on every corner in the state.”

Weinberg said that when his company applied for a license, it assumed it would be “a major regional attraction,” drawing patrons heavily from south of the mall, including from the District and Northern Virginia.

If lawmakers allow another casino in neighboring Prince George’s, “we’re in trouble,” Weinberg said.

Maryland Live! is finishing construction of a massive facility — more than three football fields in length — with 4,750 slot machines, several restaurants and a live music venue inside the casino.

While Cordish does not want a sixth casino, Weinberg said it is interested in adding Las Vegas-style table games, including blackjack, roulette and craps.

The House panel held hearings Friday on several other gaming bills, including one that would only authorize table games at the state’s existing five casinos.

Any major expansion of gambling in Maryland would require another statewide referendum. That would come in November if a bill passes before the end of the current 90-day session.

Giving the people a say is a large part of the argument for allowing a Prince George’s venue.

In his latest pitch to lawmakers, Baker said Friday that several provisions in the bill would ensure that existing casino owners “are held as harmless as possible.”

Allowing them to have table games and letting them keep a larger share of proceeds would help offset any lost business, he suggested.

As written, the bill would seek competitive bids for a sixth casino for a swath of western Prince George’s that includes both National Harbor, the 300-acre mixed use development on the Potomac, and Rosecroft Raceway, a recently reopened horse track in Fort Washington.

Baker reiterated to lawmakers that his strong preference is to put “a high-end, destination resort” at National Harbor.

A representative of Penn National Gaming, which owns Rosecroft, took issue Friday with Baker’s role in the process. The Pennsylvania-based company started a concerted push last summer to put slots at the track, operating “based on the rules as we knew them,” spokeswoman Karen Bailey said.

She stressed that Penn’s proposed $300 million casino at Rosecroft could be built without changing the share of proceeds that operators retain.

Baker has acknowledged that to finance a billion-dollar casino, the operator share would have to increase significantly — beyond the 40 percent written in the bill. Baker has not provided a specific figure, however.

Several lawmakers pushed Caesars representatives Friday on whether the company has any interest in running a casino at National Harbor.

“No,” said Busche, the company vice president. “We’ve had no discussions, we’ve had no consideration.”

An investment group that includes Caesars has the only bid pending before a state panel for the Baltimore license. A decision is expected this spring.

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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