After a glitzy, photo-op filled ceremony that featured the governor and the mayor, the people of Baltimore welcomed their first casino their own way Tuesday night.
With a half hour to go before the new Horseshoe casino opened to the public, a crowd made up mostly of senior citizens and the wheelchair bound, massed before a set of glass doors on the ground floor, by an empty red carpet.
They had gathered there after being told they would be allowed to go in a few minutes early. But then they were told they would have to wait until 9 p.m. like everyone else.
Thats when the shouting began: “Let us through!”
“You are violating the American with Disabilities Act!” yelled a woman gripping a walker.
The queue for the general public started a couple blocks away, past a Public Storage facility and a salvage store, in a surface parking lot guarded by casino staff.
To mark Horseshoe’s opening, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) and Stephen Martino, director of the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency, took turns pulling down a giant slot-machine lever to signal that the betting near the Inner Harbor could begin, and upping the state’s bet on legalized gambling as a source of tax revenue and jobs.
“Horseshoe brings the promise of a better Baltimore,” Rawlings-Blake declared before an estimated 15,000 visitors streamed in.
Rawlings-Blake was joined on stage by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who noted that Maryland’s burgeoning casino industry has generated more than 5,000 jobs. About 1,700 of them are at Horseshoe, in a city where the unemployment rate is almost 10 percent.
The $442 million casino, owned by Caesars Entertainment, is the state’s fifth since Marylanders legalized slots in 2008 and table games in 2012.
It joins a growing list of casinos that have opened in major cities, bringing with them desperately needed jobs as well as concerns about placing 24-hour gambling halls on the doorsteps of those who can least afford to play — and lose.
But gambling’s social costs took a back seat Tuesday to celebration by public officials and Horseshoe executives.
Caesars chief executive Gary Loveman touted the casino’s urban setting, saying it was “built to meld in.”
Casinos have already boosted gambling’s contribution to the state’s Education Trust and General Fund by almost $300 million for fiscal 2014. Horseshoe’s arrival will send that number even higher.
If state projections turn out to be right, gambling in Maryland is on the verge of becoming a $1 billion industry.
Horseshoe enters an increasingly crowded Mid-Atlantic casino market, where the success of new gambling halls has come at the price of the established ones in West Virginia, Delaware and Atlantic City. One of the biggest winners has been Maryland Live, the two-year-old casino next to the Arundel Mills mall, just 12 miles south of downtown Baltimore.
Maryland Live is expected to be the hardest hit by competition from Horseshoe and MGM’s planned casino resort at National Harbor, slated to open in 2016.
The state’s other casinos are smaller and farther away, in Perryville, Rocky Gap and Berlin. As of July, Live owned an 80 percent share of the state’s casino market, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas’s Center for Gaming Research estimated.
On Tuesday, retiree Clarice Nelson, 67, of West Baltimore was officially declared the first person in line, having arrived via the 27 bus at 9 a.m.
She said she came early expecting to find people who had camped out overnight. When she didn’t, she decided to stay anyway. She set up a chair in the center of the lot, ate her breakfast, and chatted with each new shift of security guards.
“Time went by fast,” she said. By 6, dozens more had joined her.
“What you get for being first in line?” a woman behind her asked.
“Nothing,” Nelson said.
A man in line pulled out a dollar. “Hey, hey,” he said, waving it until Nelson took it. “Make that the first dollar played.”
Nelson said she wished she was rich enough to play poker instead of slots. The most she ever won off a slot machine was $350, “years ago,” she said, laughing.
As 9 p.m. approached, a casino worker appeared before Nelson and held up his arms to get people’s attention. “This is what I need from everyone: Calm and orderly! Can I hear you say it?”
The crowd of about 300 yelled back: “Calm and orderly!”
It was less calm and orderly on the third floor of the parking garage, where hundreds more had queued up by another entrance. (More than 15,000 visited the casino in the first few hours, a spokesman later said.) At the front of the line, a few impatient gamblers argued with police officers guarding the door.
At 9 p.m., police began letting people through and a cheer echoed through the lot.