Slots Near Mall Warily Welcomed
Thursday, February 5, 2009
When legislators in Annapolis began debating whether to bring slot machines to Maryland, a lot of the talk focused on gambling helping the dying horse racing industry. So it was only natural that one of the locations for a slots parlor would be near the racetrack in Laurel. But now much of the debate on the proposed location is centered on a completely different activity: shopping.
In a move that surprised many analysts after Maryland legalized slot machines, a developer, in partnership with Arundel Mills, has proposed installing 4,750 video slot machines adjacent to the outlet mall, which is better known for its low prices at Aeropostale and movies at an Egyptian-style theater. Of five areas around the state that legislators proposed for slots parlors, Anne Arundel is the only one with two competing bids. The other is from the operators of the nearby Laurel racetrack. No matter which is approved, the winner will be the closest to the Washington region.
"It's certainly not as chichi as some places," said Wayne Koscinsky, 41, as he walked the mall with his 1-year-old yesterday. "I mean, it's an outlet mall, but I never thought it'd be the sort of place you go to gamble."
But times are dire, retail is hurting and state and county government coffers are almost bare. So many local leaders are cautiously embracing the venture, even as some residents and mall customers worry that it might increase traffic congestion and crime.
As a business proposition, the plan makes a lot of sense, experts said. It's not unusual to combine casinos with retail, restaurants and entertainment. Las Vegas, after all, is an entire city built on the concept. But in such ventures, businesses often are ancillary to a casino.
What's remarkable about the Arundel Mills proposal is that it takes a retail anchor and tries to build a gambling operation in the midst of it.
"I can't recollect it being done quite this way before," said Jeff Hooke, a Bethesda gaming analyst, "but that doesn't mean it wouldn't work just as well."
Malls, after all, operate on the same basic principles as a casino: easy access, consumer awareness and figuring every way possible to get people to part with their money. The Arundel Mills slots parlor could benefit from instant visibility and traffic from the mall's 14 million annual visitors, its 17 anchor retailers and more than 225 specialty stores.
The plan was proposed by Cordish, a Baltimore-based development firm, which is working with the mall's owner, Simon Property Group. The specifics of their proposal is under wraps while it and five other bids are being considered by the state. Cordish and Simon declined to disclose details about the proposed facility, except that it would be a separate structure and open only to people 21 and older.
Opposition in the business community has given way in recent weeks to reluctant acceptance. Many who had opposed slots in last year's referendum campaign had argued that it would siphon people's money, decreasing business at county stores.
"We're trying to make lemonade out of lemons," said Bob Burdon, head of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce. "What we're focused on now is how to capture these people who will come for the slots. How to get them to see there's more to this place than the one-armed bandits."
The Arundel Mills site will have to vie for approval against a proposal for slots at the Laurel racetrack that was often cited at debates.
"Politically, the Laurel racetrack was such a big part of the whole argument for slots," said Dan Nataf, a political scientist at Anne Arundel Community College. "So it's a natural question now to ask, 'What does putting slots in a mall have to do with any of that?' "
Cordish has begun arguing the mall's advantage over the Laurel racetrack. Yesterday, company spokeswoman Kim Damion noted the infrastructure at the mall for parking, sewers and streets, as well as its easy access from two major roads, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Interstate 95. The company behind the Laurel bid also failed to pay a $28.5 million fee required with its application.
County Executive John R. Leopold (R) has remained neutral about the two proposals, and despite his long-held reservations about slots, he is drawing up zoning legislation that would accommodate either site. New revenue would be a relief, he said. The county faced a $45 million deficit this fiscal year, and next year the deficit is estimated at $108 million.
Many in the mall yesterday expressed similar views. "If the economics of having gambling at the mall make sense," said Melinda Clayton, 40, of Hanover, "I can't really blame them for bringing it here. Maybe there'll be more traffic. Maybe there'll be a slight increase in crime. But if it brings revenue, I say go for it."
Staff writer John Wagner and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.