Md. county council pushes casino plan ahead for Arundel Mills

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Plans to put a slots casino at a Maryland outlet mall moved far closer to reality Monday night when the Anne Arundel County Council approved zoning for the 4,750-machine facility, breaking a stalemate that threatened to sink the project.

With a 4 to 2 vote, the council gave its blessing to the proposed casino at Arundel Mills mall, which would be the largest of five slots sites authorized in Maryland and one of the largest of its kind in the nation.

Cordish Cos., the project's Baltimore-based developers, must still obtain an array of permits before breaking ground, and several legal and other challenges loom. But zoning approval had emerged as the biggest hurdle for the casino, which Cordish has said could open by December 2011.

The state awarded the company a slots license two weeks ago, contingent on the council's zoning approval. For months, homeowners from neighborhoods around the mall have fought the legislation, voicing concerns about increased traffic and whether a casino would erode the mall's "family-friendly" atmosphere.

But those concerns were trumped Monday by the promise of the revenue that slots could bring to the state and the county.

"We need this money," council member Tricia L. Johnson (R-Davidsonville) told a packed council chamber as she urged her colleagues to pass "a proposal right in front of us."

Within a few years, the mall casino could generate more than $500 million a year, about half of which would be earmarked for state education programs, according to consultants hired by the state. The county would also get a cut of the proceeds.

The stakes were raised for Monday night's vote when a state panel last week rejected a bid to build Maryland's second-largest proposed casino, a 3,750-machine facility in downtown Baltimore. The right to operate that facility will be rebid, delaying the expected flow of revenue to the state for months, if not years.

The Anne Arundel site would account for about 40 percent of the total revenue legislative analysts have projected the five slots sites could generate annually. The state is counting on the Baltimore site for about 30 percent of total revenue.

Monday night's victory for Cordish was less than clear-cut to some watching in the chamber.

Before passing the bill that would allow slots at the mall, the council voted 4 to 2 for a competing zoning bill that would permit slots at several locations in Anne Arundel, including Laurel Park racetrack -- but not at the mall. Just minutes later, however, the second zoning bill passed, giving Cordish the zoning it sought.

Advocates on both sides of the issue said they were certain that Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold (R) would veto the first bill. Leopold, who was unavailable to comment, previously criticized legislation that excluded Cordish.

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