Maryland’s fourth casino opened Wednesday at a lakefront lodge in the mountains of Western Maryland, adding live-action craps tables and chiming slot machines to a scenic site where the state once placed a big bet — and lost.
The taxpayer-subsidized golf resort at Rocky Gap State Park was a bucolic boondoggle that cost Maryland millions of dollars and never lived up to its promise as a money-making tourist destination in an area that badly needed an economic boost.
Now comes the chase, with state officials hoping that gambling at Rocky Gap Casino Resort can change the fortunes of the mountain property in Allegany County along Interstate 68.
“It’s going to need some love, but I think there’s a great deal of potential,” said Del. Frank S. Turner (D-Howard), vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over gambling issues.
But Turner, who visited Rocky Gap on Monday, said the property will need more than just a casino to be successful. The new owners will have to market it as a resort with golf and “so much more to do.”
The odds of success are favorable, said Scott Just, the rebranded resort’s new general manager. “I don’t know where this goes, but it’s going to go very high,” he said, minutes after the casino opened.
Maryland’s comptroller once called the debt-ridden lodge “one of the biggest white elephants ever imposed on the taxpayers of this state.” But the 220-room upscale resort with the full-service spa, 18-hole Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course and sprawling conference space often did robust business from spring through fall, Just said.
“I think it did work, but it only worked for a limited period of time each year,” he said. “Without the hooks to get through the low periods in the wintertime, it didn’t work overall. . . . They just couldn’t cross the hurdle.”
The resort was developed in 1998 by the Maryland Economic Development Corp., with $16 million in state funding and $33 million raised through a bond bill. The state subsequently pumped millions more into the project just to keep it afloat, with the resort racking up combined operating losses of more than $10 million in fiscal 2010 through 2012, according to public financial statements.
It was purchased in August for about $6.8 million by Minnesota-based Lakes Entertainment, which is spending about $35 million on improvements. The casino is also adding 250 jobs, in a county whose unemployment rate was 8.7 percent for the first three months of this year — nearly two percentage points higher than the statewide average.
The casino license for the property was hardly a hot item: Multiple rounds of bidding turned up no qualified operators. The state had to sweeten the deal by offering a 50 percent share of gross slots revenue at the site — 17 percent more than the owners of Maryland’s other casinos are allowed to keep.
Lakes originally planned to build a casino in a separate structure with 850 slot machines and eventually increase to 1,000. But the company dropped to 558 slots along with 10 table games and opted to put the casino in the existing events space after struggling to obtain financing.
Potential investors, the company said, were worried the casino might not generate enough business, given its remote location. But Just, the property’s general manager and a corporate executive with Lakes, said he was certain it would work.
“Opening a casino in more of a rural area is what we have expertise in,” he said. “The sky’s the limit.”