Md. county council pushes casino plan ahead for Arundel Mills

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 22, 2009; B01

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.

Surprising vote

The key vote for the mall site came from an unexpected source: council member James Benoit (D-Crownsville), an avowed gambling opponent.

After the first zoning bill passed, Benoit said it would be "futile" to oppose the second on principle because slots were now coming to the county regardless. The bill cutting out Cordish "violates every sense of fair play," said Benoit, whose council district includes the racetrack.

Even before Monday's meeting, a group opposed to slots at the mall vowed to continue fighting the project if the zoning vote did not go its way. The group, Stop Slots at Arundel Mills, said it would launch a petition drive with the hope of delaying -- and later derailing -- the bill's implementation.

Like other Maryland jurisdictions, Anne Arundel allows residents to challenge legislation through a ballot drive, by collecting signatures equal in number to 10 percent of the votes cast in the county in the last gubernatorial election. If the group gathers enough names, Anne Arundel voters would get a say on the zoning bill in November.

"This is not the end but the beginning of the next step," said Rob Annicelli, the group's president.

Last year, a statewide ballot issue authorizing the five slots sites passed with the support of 59 percent of Anne Arundel voters. But anti-slots activists said that most people assumed at the time that slots would go to Laurel Park racetrack, not the mall.

Annicelli said the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Laurel, would assist with the petition-gathering.

Laurel Racing Association, another entity affiliated with the track, has also challenged the state's decision in February to disqualify its bid to host slots. A state panel threw out Laurel's bid because it was not accompanied by a required $28.5 million licensing fee.

The company is appealing to a separate state panel to allow it back in the bidding for the Anne Arundel license. Laurel claims it was unclear whether unsuccessful bidders would have the licensing fee refunded.

Cordish officials have said that a casino at the mall, which draws about 14 million people a year, would be far more lucrative than one at the racetrack. And they say the casino would bring far more to the mall than slot machines.

Plans for the facility, they say, also include a steak house and Asian-themed restaurant. The casino would also have two bars on the gaming floor, an entertainment lounge, a VIP club and a buffet-style restaurant.

Thousands of jobs

Construction and operation of the casino could generate more than 2,300 jobs, according to a consultant hired by the state. Cordish has touted a higher figure -- 4,000 -- and held a job fair last month, dismissing doubts about whether the casino would receive zoning approval.

In countering the anti-slots group, Cordish pointed to a long list of groups that support the casino, including the county's teachers association, chamber of commerce, police officers and firefighters.

Maryland's fledgling slots program has endured a series of setbacks since its launch late last year. Bidding to operate the five sites drew an anemic response in February, which was largely attributed to the economy.

More recently, state officials have learned that the first slots operator to receive a license -- the owner of Ocean Downs racetrack on the Eastern Shore -- has run into problems with asbestos and other construction-related issues and will not open in May as advertised.

A planned casino in Cecil County being built by Penn National Gaming is on track. That facility has secured a state license and local approval, and operators say it will open by late next year.

There were no qualified bids received in February for a fifth Maryland slots license, in Allegany County. State officials are likely to rebid the license.

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