Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III said Thursday that he wants to see a billion-dollar casino on the banks of the Potomac River, arguing that a “high-end” gaming destination at National Harbor would be a catalyst for economic development and generate much-needed tax revenue.
The announcement, which carries considerable political risk for Baker (D), is certain to shake up a debate in Annapolis over legislation to expand Maryland’s gambling program — and add fuel to one in Prince George’s about what kind of development the county should embrace.
The developer of National Harbor endorsed the plan Thursday, but the prospect of bringing a full-fledged casino to Prince George’s faces considerable hurdles, including mixed views among county lawmakers and staunch opposition from the owner of a planned casino in neighboring Anne Arundel County.
Baker, who opposed slots during a decade as a state delegate, said in an interview that his views have changed since becoming county executive 14 months ago and that — under the right conditions — he would welcome a facility “much like what you see in Las Vegas.”
“The economy around us has changed,” Baker said. “There are far fewer revenue options for the county or the state. . . . We’re going to do everything we can to get this bill passed.”
In addition to generating education funding for the state, Baker said, the casino could yield nearly $50 million a year in gaming and other tax revenue for the county, which could be spent on a variety of economic development, housing and community-based programs.
Gambling boosters have long argued that a Prince George’s casino could be Maryland’s most lucrative, drawing patrons from the District and Northern Virginia, where casino-style gaming remains illegal. The county was not among the five locations in a 2007 bill that launched Maryland’s slots program, however, because of near-unanimous opposition from Prince George’s lawmakers.
Although that opposition has softened, many elected leaders in Prince George’s say they remain concerned that gambling preys on the poor and will tarnish the county’s image — even as part of an upscale development.
“Should we make that our hallmark in Prince George’s County? I don’t think it is a great idea,” said Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George’s). “When people think of Prince George’s County, I don’t want the first thing they think of to be ‘that’s where we can play slots and gamble.’ ”
Legislation introduced in both chambers of the General Assembly in recent weeks would add a sixth gaming site, in Prince George’s, pending approval by state and county voters.
The bill also would allow table games, such as blackjack, craps and roulette, at all Maryland casinos and would increase the share of proceeds that private operators may keep.
Supporters, who include the powerful Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), say the bill would make Maryland more competitive with the surrounding states of Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
The legislation calls for bids for a Prince George’s casino from locations in a western swath of the county that includes both National Harbor and the recently reopened Rosecroft Raceway.
Penn National Gaming, the new owner of Rosecroft, has made a concerted push since summer to build support in the legislature for gaming at the once-storied horse-racing track in Fort Washington.
Baker made clear that his administration strongly prefers National Harbor. The 300-acre, $2 billion development, which opened in 2008, features retail, restaurants, and hotel and conference accommodations.
In the interview, Baker cited National Harbor’s amenities and infrastructure, the site’s ability to draw international visitors and a smaller impact on residential areas.
Not everyone is convinced. William H. Cavitt, president of the Indian Head Highway Area Action Council, said his organization is gearing up to fight Baker’s plan, citing concerns that surrounding home values will plummet.
“We will fight it tooth and nail,” said Cavitt, who lives a few minutes by car from National Harbor and whose organization is made up of 35 civic and neighborhood associations.
Jonathan Weaver, pastor at Greater Mount Nebo AME Church in Bowie, a leading spokesman for religious leaders opposed to gambling, said he was dismayed by Baker’s proposal.
“Who is he listening to? The citizens of Prince George’s County or other people who don’t live in this county who are trying to profit off the backs of people who live here?” he asked.
“People are absolutely furious,” he said.
In a statement Thursday, National Harbor’s developer, the Peterson Cos., and Gaylord Entertainment, the owner of the largest hotel on the property, said they “fully and enthusiastically embrace [Baker’s] proposal and are committed to facilitating such a development.”
The preference for National Harbor was one of several conditions Baker spelled out for his support of the gambling legislation, which is sponsored by Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Prince George’s).
Peters said he looked forward to continuing discussions with Baker and his colleagues about changes to the bill but expressed concern about steering the project to National Harbor without taking bids for other locations.
Baker said he strongly opposes a provision in the bill that earmarks a portion of gambling proceeds for construction of a new regional hospital in the county. The state has previously committed to paying a share of that roughly $600 million cost, and Baker said tying the project to gaming revenue sends the wrong message.
A more difficult hurdle may be Baker’s insistence on providing a large enough economic inducement to lure a casino of the quality he says is necessary.
Baker said he wants a private developer to invest $1 billion in the project. That is roughly twice the capital investment of the state’s largest planned casino, which is scheduled to open in June at Arundel Mills mall in Hanover.
That level of investment is important, Baker said, to ensure that what is built in Prince George’s “is not a slots barn.”
To make such a project viable, Baker and his aides said, the operator would have to be permitted to keep a significantly larger share of proceeds than under current law — but they did not offer a specific suggestion.
Peters’s bill proposes raising the operator share on slot machines from 33 to 40 percent. Baker is open to a higher number in Prince George’s.
Baker would also like the state and county to keep a portion of table games revenue at all casinos. Under Peters’s bill, operators would be able to keep all those proceeds as an incentive to upgrade their facilities.
Peters’s bill has drawn staunch opposition from the Cordish Cos., the developer of the Anne Arundel casino, which would be situated between casino sites in Prince George’s and downtown Baltimore.
That is among several hurdles House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) has cited in recent discussions of the prospects for gambling expansion legislation in his chamber.
Baker acknowledged in the interview that he has a tough sales job ahead: “We’re going to have to do a lot of talking, starting with our delegation here.”