Every night is like New Year’s Eve at Maryland’s casinos, if you’re into that late-night-partying thing.
Unlike other booze-selling businesses around the state, three of Maryland’s four casinos can serve alcohol around the clock — the result of a little-noticed series of General Assembly bills and a gambling-expansion referendum approved by voters last year.
With last call gone forever at Maryland Live in Anne Arundel County, Hollywood Casino in Perryville and Rocky Gap Casino Resort in Western Maryland, restaurant and bar owners have complained that the gambling goliaths have an unfair competitive edge. Now the alcohol-fueled angst is spreading to Baltimore, where liquor license holders are especially worried about the arrival of the state’s fifth casino near the Inner Harbor, not far from some of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods.
Once it opens in 2014, the Horseshoe-branded casino does not plan to close its doors — or its bars, which will operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, thanks to the special license that was created by the state legislature last year and conditionally approved this month by the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners.
“I have great concerns that it won’t be a level playing field,” said Marc McFaul, who runs several Federal Hill drinking establishments close to the Horseshoe site, including Ropewalk Tavern, Delia Foley’s and Stalking Horse.
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Horseshoe executives say the casino will lure new visitors to Baltimore, which will ultimately benefit nearby bars and other businesses. But McFaul believes watering holes from Federal Hill to Fells Point could just as easily lose customers to the casino. “The young people who go out for city life could wind up saying: Let’s skip the local places if they’re just going to kick us out at 1:30 and we can stay all night at the casino,” he said.
Similar concerns are likely to be raised in Prince George’s County when MGM National Harbor’s liquor license comes up ahead of the gambling resort’s mid-2016 opening.
Though the move to 24-hour alcohol sales represents a major policy change for Maryland, the idea was subjected to little debate in the legislature.
With the casinos starting to open in 2010, lawmakers in Annapolis passed a series of bills to create new licenses that allowed alcohol sales during all operating hours. (And they are sales; Maryland casinos are prohibited from giving away alcohol.)
Initially, the casinos had to close no later than 4 a.m. But that changed late last year after voters approved a major expansion of casino gambling that included round-the-clock operations. Most of the opposition to the ballot measure focused on adding a casino in Prince George’s County; the 24-7 gambling and alcohol sales received scant attention.
“I think the people who were morally outraged by casinos were saving their outrage for the casinos themselves, and not the details of their operations,” House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) said.
One exception: the Casino at Ocean Downs, in Worcester County. Bar and restaurant owners in nearby Ocean City balked at the notion of allowing all-night service at a casino just 10 minutes from the summer resort’s main strip when they had to cut off alcohol sales at 2 a.m.
Proving that the house doesn’t always win, a compromise was reached in the legislature in April under which the casino would stop serving at 4 a.m.
“We obviously feel it’s unfair,” said Gary Figgs, vice president and chief financial officer of the money-minting Ocean City megabar Seacrets. “We have to stop at 2, and they can keep going and going.”
Some lawmakers lament that the potential consequences of 24-7 alcohol sales weren’t given a fuller airing.
“The first time someone dies from a drunk driver coming out of Maryland Live at 3 in the morning with chips in his pocket, then maybe it will be an issue,” said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), a vocal opponent of casino gambling.
Maryland State Police spokeswoman Elena Russo said that the move to 24-hour service hasn’t set off alarm bells or altered the way the department enforces the law. “Our troopers remain vigilant about arresting drunk drivers and removing them from roads, no matter what the [state’s alcohol sales] policy is,” she said.
Officials at Maryland Live, the state’s largest casino, note that gambling operators in Maryland are required by law to monitor the effects of alcohol on their customers.
“If we find somebody who’s intoxicated on the casino floor,” said President and General Manager Rob Norton, “we have to find them a safe way home.”
Every one of the 3,000 employees at the Arundel Mills Mall casino has gone through ServSafe Alcohol training, Norton said, and Maryland Live also has a rewards program for designated drivers.
The casino has never advertised that it serves alcohol around the clock, Norton noted. “Our primary purpose for serving alcohol is to create an entertaining night out for those who enjoy gaming,” he said.
Left unsaid: Drinkers are not the target audience for the casino, which has generated at least $50 million in gross gambling revenue each month since May. Alcohol sales represent “a small, single-digit percentage” of the casino’s overall revenue, Norton said.
Prices at Maryland Live start at $5 for beer and $8 for cocktails. Unlike in New Jersey, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and some other states, comped casino cocktails are prohibited in Maryland. Delaware’s casinos also don’t allow free alcohol.
“Keep in mind that we’re not competing against other Maryland businesses so much as we are competing against casinos in neighboring states,” Norton said. Twenty-four-hour alcohol service, he said, “is important for us to be competitive. The customers who come here expect to be able to get a drink when they want one.”
Eventually, state lawmakers will have to decide about what kind of alcohol license MGM National Harbor gets.
Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George’s), who leads her county’s delegation in Annapolis, said there has not been much discussion about MGM, whose riverfront gambling resort just won the state’s sixth and final casino license. But she anticipates little opposition to a 24-hour license, in part because the casino won’t be competing for bar business with establishments outside of National Harbor.
“I don’t anticipate it being an issue,” said Ivey, who is running for lieutenant governor next year. “It’s not like it’s just down the street from anything.”
In Baltimore, a state-created development council has been meeting to prepare for the Horseshoe casino’s arrival in the second half of 2014, addressing issues that include the expected influx of humanity each night after last call in Federal Hill, Fells Point and other parts of the city.
“I think that’s a concern, and it’s something we’ve been talking about a lot,” said Del. Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore), who said some people believe the issue should have been explored in more detail in 2012, when lawmakers approved the alcohol license. “Looking back, there are people who would have liked some more conversation about what this will mean.”
McFaul, who bought his first Federal Hill bar with a credit card 18 years ago, is nervous. “It’s a little scary — what they’re going to be able to do and how it’s going to effect our business,” he said.