Rivals for Prince George’s casino license make their cases to Md. commission

October 26, 2013

The three gambling operators trying to win a coveted casino license in Prince George’s County made their formal, chest-thumping pitches last week. Now, the seven members of the Maryland Video Lottery Facility Location Commission will consider the bidders’ projections and promises and do some due diligence before picking a winner.

The high-stakes prize: permission to build a Las Vegas-style resort in a part of Maryland near Washington and Northern Virginia — a destination property that could generate more than $1 billion a year in gross gambling revenue, according to one applicant’s public analysis.

A decision on whether the state’s sixth and final casino license will go to MGM Resorts International, Penn National Gaming or Greenwood Racing is likely to be made before Christmas, said the commission’s chairman, Donald C. Fry. But he said that in awarding each of the state’s first five licenses, the commission had only one applicant left at this point in the process and, therefore, finds itself in unfamiliar territory

“This is the first time it’s been truly competitive at the decision-making stage, which is what the legislature always intended to have,” Fry said. Considering multiple proposals “complicates things,” said Fry, a former Democratic state senator who was appointed to chair the commission by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) in 2008. “I shouldn’t say ‘complicates,’ but it changes the dynamic.”

On Friday, the last day of presentations, Fry was visiting one of the three sites proposed by the three competitors: a dusty gravel parking lot overlooking the Potomac River near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge that MGM Resorts International would like to transform into a gambling mecca. By the summer of 2016, the 23-acre site could house MGM National Harbor, a $925 million casino that would have 3,600 slot machines, 140 gaming tables, a 300-room hotel tower, several celebrity chefs, a concert theater, a spa and other amenities.


(Gene Thorp/The Washington Post)

Traffic rumbled past on the nearby Capital Beltway as men and women in dark suits crowded around architectural renderings and models of MGM National Harbor, a dramatic, national monument-inspired property that would have its own reflecting pool.

“I have to win this, or my wife will kill me,” MGM Resorts Chairman Jim Murren joked. “She’s from Maryland.”

The Prince George’s casino license was approved by Maryland voters in November as part of a dramatic expansion of gambling in the state, including the addition of live-action table games and 24-hour casino operations. MGM spent more than $40 million to push for the referendum’s passage.

Penn National Gaming spent more than $42 million to fight the plan, most likely to protect the profits of the company’s cash cow, Hollywood Casino in Charles Town, W.Va., according to analysts. Now, with gambling revenue falling significantly in Charles Town, the casino has been laying off dealers and taking some of its table games offline. The director of the West Virginia Lottery told reporters last week that the casino’s woes are directly related to Maryland’s gambling growth.

The news came as Penn National officials appeared before the Maryland commission to present a proposal for a $700 million Hollywood Casino at Rosecroft Raceway, with 3,000 slot machines, 140 table games, a 258-room hotel, a convention center and a new grandstand for Rosecroft’s historic harness-racing track.

On Wednesday, an affiliate of Greenwood Racing made a pitch for a $761 million Parx Casino Hotel & Spa on what is now a 22-acre wooded lot in Fort Washington. The company proposes to install more slot machines (4,750) and more table games (170) than the other operators.

The Parx proposal includes a $100 million pledge to fund improvements to traffic-choked Indian Head Highway. Greenwood also offered to pay a 67 percent slots tax, which is 5 percent higher than the state-mandated rate. MGM and Penn would keep the rate at 62 percent.

Penn made a splash with its own proposal by promising to turn over all of its profits, in perpetuity, to benefit the county health-care system as well as a new retirement benefit for teachers and other community organizations and nonprofit groups. The total giveaway, over the first 15 years of operation, would be well over $300 million, the company said.

During MGM’s presentation to the commission, at the Friendly High School auditorium, Commissioner D. Bruce Poole asked whether the company is considering anything similar.

“Thank God, no,” Murren said. “I thought that was a very clever headline. But I’ve spent too much time on Wall Street to be snookered by that one.”

MGM, he said, was proposing to invest more money in the county and state than the other applicants, and it would generate more property tax and gambling revenue, in a better location, with the fewest traffic concerns and the best marketing outreach. It would also open the nicest of the three proposed casinos, he said, run by the company with the strongest brand. “We are the preeminent operator,” Murren said. “I think there’s no doubt of that.”

All the boasting and most of the bid-sweeteners may not matter much while the unpaid commissioners deliberate, said James Karmel, a casino analyst at Harford Community College in Bel Air, Md. “The commission has a quite specific set of criteria laid out by the state that’s heavily weighted on the business model,” Karmel said. “There are other factors, but it comes back to the potential for these proposed casinos to produce revenue.”

By law, 70 percent of the commission’s decision should be based on “business and market factors.” There are nine in all, including having “the highest potential benefit and highest prospective total revenues” for the state and the likelihood that the casino “will be a substantial regional and national tourist destination.”

Economic-development factors account for 15 percent of the evaluation factors, with infrastructure and community impact making up the other 15 percent.

But the most interesting “percentage” of the week could prove to be 67. The Parx offer to pay a higher slots tax than the other applicants would result in an additional $30 million in annual tax revenue, a company spokesman said.

The commission is allowed to negotiate with the applicants, who, in turn, can submit revised proposals. But the odds are probably against the commission asking MGM Resorts or Penn National to revise their tax rates, Karmel said.

“It would be remarkable for them to play off the different bidders like that. I don’t think the commission wants what would amount to a bidding war. It could get very complicated and make what’s already a challenging process even harder and maybe lead to legal issues.”

Still, Karmel said, what the Parx group is proposing “really says something about the potential profitability of this license.”

A market analysis commissioned by the Greenwood Racing group showed that by the third year of operation, a Parx casino in Fort Washington would generate $812 million in gross gambling revenue on the low end and $1.02 billion on the high end.

MGM officials said their “conservative” third-year projection was about $650 million. Maryland Live, which opened in Anne Arundel County in mid-2012 and is currently the state’s largest casino, is projecting $621 million in gross gambling revenue for the current fiscal year, according to a document sent to the state Lottery and Gaming Control Agency this month.

The state location commission has hired consultants to do a financial analysis.

J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.
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