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O'Malley, gamblers praise Md.'s first slots casino at its grand opening

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 8:19 PM

PERRYVILLE, MD. - The opening of Maryland's first casino this week in Cecil County excited Denny Meadows so much that he made three pilgrimages in 24 hours. Normally, Meadows, who lives off a pension and disability checks, does his gambling out of state, at Delaware Park casino in Wilmington. Now, after years of political tussling, the retired utility worker can play video slot machines at Hollywood Casino, conveniently located just 15 minutes from his home.

"Why should we give all our money away to other states?" Meadows said Thursday morning, sitting on his motorized scooter while he played "Invaders of the Planet Moohlah." "We should have done this 10 years ago. Yesterday, I won $300."

In the casino's Epic Buffet dining room Thursday, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) celebrated the opening of the 1,500-machine emporium just off Interstate 95, reveling in Maryland's ability, at long last, to compete with gambling operations in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

"Dollars that used to fly across the border . . . instead, they are staying here," O'Malley said. "For four long years, we were locked in gridlock about slots . . . [while] other states had resolved the issue."

In 2008, voters approved a plan to build five slots parlors around the state. State officials promised a windfall of $660 million a year for public schools and $100 million for the state's flagging horse industry.

Hollywood Casino opened quietly Monday and lured 21,000 visitors in its first three days, according to its owner, Penn National Gaming, the nation's third-largest publicly traded gaming company. The casino has a clear field as plans for opening four other facilities remain unsettled. A parlor at Ocean Downs Racetrack on the Eastern Shore is expected to open in late December, but state officials say bad weather could delay opening until 2011. Proposed casinos in Anne Arundel County and at Baltimore's Inner Harbor are mired in legal and political uncertainties. A proposed location at Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort in Western Maryland has yet to draw qualified bidders.

Hollywood Casino occupies a large sand-colored building that looks like a movie theater from the outside. Visitors step into a dark, cavernous room where neon red, green and blue flashes pulsate from video slots. The collective clang of the machines' bells sounds like a church organ playing without interruption.

Many of the games feature ethnic themes: "Jumpin' Jalapeno" features a picture of a man wearing a sombrero, and "Moon Rising" depicts an Asian-looking woman dressed in kimono and beads. Other games try to seduce, literally: Video three-card poker or blackjack games feature women dressed in tight lingerie, prominently displaying their cleavage. The women on the screens ask roaming bettors: "Don't you want to play with me?"

Gambling veterans, who can be fussy about which games bring them the most luck, couldn't help but compare the Perryville casino with established parlors in Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

"It's nice here," said Michael Waller, 55, a retired Navy operations specialist. "They don't smoke here like in other places. But the machines are new, and I miss a couple of them, like 'The Village People.' I almost won up to $3,000 on that."

Waller, who also works as a disc jockey at a nightclub near the Laurel racetrack, worries that slots might be arriving too late to rejuvenate Maryland's horse industry. "If these slot machines got here faster," he said, "it would have saved Laurel."

In Perryville, an old railroad town of 4,500, politicians and business owners have been eager for the casino, which employs about 350 people, mostly locals. James L. Eberhardt, Perryville's mayor, said plans for the 140-acre property include hotels and restaurants. Other residents hope the casino will help the nearby outlet mall.

"It's slow, real slow," said Janet Pruitt, who manages the Totes store at the mall. "We had 25 customers the other day, but that's only because we had a senior citizens discount. Normally, it's 10 a day."

Other businesses are seeing fruit from the slots. Tammy Melrath, a supervisor at the town's lone hotel, the Ramada Inn, said about 75 percent of its 104 rooms were booked for the weekend, about 25 more than on a typical weekend.

At the casino, many gamblers grumbled that the good news could have come sooner had Democrats in the mid-2000s worked with then-governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who is running again this fall against O'Malley.

Over dinner at the Epic Buffet, one group of friends complained that Democrats are getting all the credit for opening the casino.

"Ehrlich wanted these casinos, but Democrats wouldn't give it to him," said Sam DiPaola, a general contractor, sitting with his wife, Phyllis, and Carol Will.

The friends finished up their dinners and headed onto the floor to make money. DiPaola chose a game called "Fish in a Barrel," making 70-cent bets. He had $6 deposited in the machine, and the computer slowly ate away at his total, keeping his hope alive with small victories along the way. DiPaola was waiting for one icon - a fish with a top hat and cigar - to emerge in the right spot, but the machine's readout chronicled the stark truth: $5.90, $5.20, $4.50, $2.

Finally, nothing.

"That's the way it works," he said, pulling out $50 more and giving the fish one more try. "As fast as you can win, you can lose it."

Meanwhile, Carol Will, a school administrator in Baltimore, was starting to feel guilty about gambling. "I could see where families could be devastated by addictions," she said. "We do take advantage of that, in the name of education."

Nearby, Nadine Bussie, 48, a corrections officer, sat with her niece Kelli Henson, 30, a census worker, playing another fish game. Bussie said the machines distract her from her job at Baltimore's central intake center. "I like the animation," she said. "The colors. Look at how they got a fish swimming in there, near a treasure chest."

Soon, Bussie tired of her penny-size bets. With $100 left, she decided to play dangerously, making $2.50 bets to see whether she could quickly score a jackpot.

As Bussie tapped the "Repeat Bet" button, Henson, alarmed, said, "What are you doing at $2.50?"

"I got bored," Bussie said.

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