Md. Slots Would Have To Fight for Md. Dollars

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 6, 2008; Page B01

CHARLES TOWN, W. Va. -- One of the biggest pitches for bringing slots to Maryland amounts to declaring a trade war on its neighbors: Let's keep gambling money inside our state borders.

Three of the locations proposed in the slot machine gambling proposal on the November ballot -- in Allegany, Cecil and Worcester counties -- were chosen in part to attract Marylanders who now go to West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey to take their chances.

But the plush new Inn at Charles Town, where from their rooms guests can watch thoroughbreds race and can hop a free shuttle to the slots floor, shows that the competition is prepared to fight back.

The $21 million, 153-room hotel, 60 miles from Rockville, opened after Labor Day with flat-screen televisions in every room, gold upholstery and a granite bar in the lobby. Less than a month before Maryland decides whether to authorize as many as 15,000 slot machines at five locations, it is a reminder that as much as state leaders are counting on billions of gambling dollars that their constituents spend every year in nearby states, the venues in those states will compete fiercely to keep them.

"Charles Town has been watching what has been occurring in Maryland as the debate has continued," said Eric Schippers, vice president for public affairs for Penn National Gaming, the owner of Charles Town Races & Slots. The hotel was a response to "significant customer demand," he said. "And we recognize that gaming expansion is going to continue in neighboring states."

In recent months, Charles Town, the country's second-highest-grossing slots venue, also polished its popular customer-rewards program, creating tiers that provide big spenders with VIP parking, hotel stays and preferred lines at the buffet. West Virginia's three racetrack-slots parlors now are open 24 hours on weekends, holidays and special promotion nights. And two added table games in the past year.

At Dover Downs in Delaware, 40 miles from the Maryland line, customers at the harness racetrack and slots parlor enjoy a newly renovated 900-room hotel, a luxury spa and a convention center, added to attract high rollers who will spend the night. Half the patrons are Marylanders.

Harrington Raceway in Delaware also upgraded its hotel and added a wing to the slots floor. Golfers can now tee off at the 18-hole course at Delaware Park before they hit the slots. And the state has allowed the tracks to operate round-the-clock and add thousands more slot machines as 61,000 slot machines ramping up in Pennsylvania threw off revenue by 4 percent. Sports betting is now being considered as a response to the competition.

Slots revenue helped rescue Delaware's racetracks. But "if Maryland comes on board, we're going to feel it," said Jim Logue, deputy director for the Delaware Lottery.

Maryland has found itself surrounded by a gambling boom in the mid-Atlantic. Every expansion of gambling pushes neighbors to raise the ante, largely with non-gambling attractions to broaden the industry's customer base with destination resorts.

Atlantic City, for example, is in the midst of a multibillion-dollar expansion to counter the Pennsylvania threat, building high-end stores, hotels, nightclubs and an Olympic-size indoor swimming pool.

Legislative analysts in Maryland predict that slots could yield more than $500 million a year for the state treasury within a few years, a number they say takes into account competition in other states. Gambling opponents are skeptical that the state would take in that much if the industry continues to reinvest across the borders.

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