Hollywood Casino Perryville may open next week in Maryland

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; 10:49 PM

After years of bitter debate and numerous setbacks, Maryland could actually have an operating slots casino this time next week.

Members of a state commission were greeted Wednesday by the sounds of whirring and dinging as they entered the nearly complete Hollywood Casino Perryville in the northeastern corner of Maryland, a 1,500-machine facility scheduled to make its public debut next Thursday.

Technicians scampered among the machines on the gaming floor. Minor construction remained to be done inside the cavernous, art deco structure, where oversize movie posters were suspended from the ceiling. And some major landscaping still must be completed.

But representatives from the casino, owned by Penn National Gaming, insisted they are on schedule for a grand opening with dignitaries including Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who has championed the state's slots program and is up for reelection in less than six weeks.

"We're glad to see a facility opening," said Donald C. Fry, chairman of the commission charged with picking the state's slots sites. "We think this is what the voters of Maryland asked for."

The Perryville site has been the one bright spot in Maryland's fledgling slots program, which was authorized by voters in a November 2008 referendum. The public vote was proposed by O'Malley to end a legislative stalemate over an issue that dominated the term of his predecessor, former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who is trying to win his job back in November.

The casino features various video-screen-style slot machines, some made to look like their old-fashioned predecessors. But most of the games look little like that; many incorporate modern-day culture as themes. Among them: "Sex & the City" and Jeff Foxworthy's Redneck Rumble.

The floor includes a handful of "electronic table games" - machines made to simulate three-card poker, blackjack and roulette - without the cards, chips or wheel. The site has a buffet-style restaurant and gift shop.

A second Maryland slots site, at Ocean Downs Racetrack on the Eastern Shore, is scheduled to open Dec. 16 with 750 machines. Its owners had advertised a Memorial Day opening, which was pushed back because of asbestos and construction problems. The site will eventually have 800 machines, the owner said.

Meanwhile, the fate of the state's two largest facilities, in Anne Arundel County and Baltimore, remains in limbo.

Anne Arundel voters will decide in November whether to allow a zoning bill to stand that is needed for construction of a planned 4,750-machine casino at Arundel Mills mall. Both sides in that fight are spending heavily on television commercials in the Baltimore region.

The developers of a planned 3,750-machine facility in downtown Baltimore have appealed the rejection of their application by Fry's commission. A new round of bidding to build and operate that site could take place in coming months.

The state has begun a second solicitation of operators for a smaller facility in Western Maryland that initially drew no interest from qualified bidders.

Even next Thursday's opening of the Perryville facility is not a sure thing. Cordish Cos., the developer of the planned Arundel Mills casino, has complained that Penn National has taken too aggressive a role in the referendum over zoning in Anne Arundel.

Besides owning the Perryville facility, Penn National is part owner of Laurel Park, a racetrack in Anne Arundel County that could become eligible for a slots license if the mall plan collapses.

An opinion from the state attorney general's office is expected soon on whether Maryland can restrict Penn National's involvement in the referendum. As part of the maneuvering among the monied interests involved, state officials say it's possible Penn National could delay the opening of its Perryville casino to gain leverage in the matter.

Himbert Sinopoli, general manager of the Perryville facility, would not comment on that prospect Wednesday, saying only that he is working toward next week's opening. A "soft launch" of the casino for invited guests is scheduled Saturday, with proceeds to benefit local charities.

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