The wait for a House committee vote on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s slots proposal hasn't dampened interest among casino companies in getting involved in Maryland.
One major company -- which employs Maryland's former tourism director as its government relations director -- is eyeing at least two sites, one in Cecil County and another at the Fort Carroll island on the southern edge of Baltimore, as potential locations for slots dens.
Ehrlich has been presented with at least one very preliminary proposal for a casino developer to purchase the state-owned Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort in Cumberland and some nearby state-owned land in Allegany County, permitting the construction of a slots facility adjacent to the resort.
Few of the proposals have gotten very far, as the governor's slots plan faces significant hurdles before winning passage in the House of Delegates.
The Senate passed a gambling bill last month that would permit 15,500 slot machines at three racetracks and three nontrack locations. The measure would permit nontrack sites in Baltimore City and Cecil and Prince George's counties, with the selections to be chosen by a panel appointed by the governor and legislature.
The House Ways and Means Committee -- which killed the governor's gambling plan last year -- held its first slots hearings this week and is expected to take up the Senate bill Tuesday. But House Democratic leaders have promised that if they pass a plan, it will look far different from the one approved by the Senate.
The interest among casino companies despite the uncertainty of the legislative process illustrates the fierce bidding war that could emerge should the General Assembly and governor agree on an expanded gambling package this year.
"We, as well as a lot of other casino companies, are looking at a lot of options in Maryland," said George Williams, director of government relations for the Isle of Capri Casinos, based in Biloxi, Miss.
Williams retired as Maryland's director of tourism in 2001 after 11 years, and said he would "love to get back to Maryland with this company."
"Maryland is a great place. It could lend itself very well to a very productive gaming industry, one that would be productive for everyone involved," Williams said.
Isle of Capri -- a losing bidder in the sale of Rosecroft Raceway late last year -- sought in the mid-1990s to build a $100 million resort and casino in Cecil, just off the Elkton exit along Interstate 95. That project was derailed when then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening pledged to block any plan to expand gambling in Maryland. But the site remains attractive to the company, Williams said, if Cecil remains eligible.
Williams also has had multiple conversations with the owner of Fort Carroll, an island just east of the Key Bridge in the Patapsco River. Construction of the six-sided outer harbor fortress was begun more than 150 years ago by then-Col. Robert E. Lee, but was never completed.
The preliminary proposal calls for a luxury gaming boat to be docked next to the island.
"We've had conversations with the guy who owns that site," Williams said. "We don't have any arrangement or any specific plans for it."
One possible benefit of the Fort Carroll site is that it is about six miles from the Inner Harbor. The Senate bill requires at least four miles between slots facilities.
But the Fort Carroll site is technically in Baltimore County, requiring a change in the Senate bill to make that portion of the county eligible for a slots facility.
Williams said Isle of Capri has also had discussions about other locations in Maryland, which he refused to identify. "The legislative action is such a moving target, it's pretty difficult to get focused on anything," he said.
In Western Maryland, most lawmakers have focused on allowing slots at a racetrack to be built in Little Orleans by developer William Rickman Jr. The bill passed by the Senate requires that one of the three racetrack slots licenses be granted to a "rural" track -- a qualification met only by the Allegany site. Rickman also owns the Ocean Downs harness track, which was prohibited from getting slots in the Senate measure, as well as a racetrack with slots in Delaware.
Ehrlich has heard at least one preliminary proposal from a company interested in buying the Rocky Gap resort from the state and building a slots facility, according to aides to the governor.
Developed by the quasi-state agency Maryland Economic Development Corp., Rocky Gap has struggled since opening in 1998, losing at least $19 million despite a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course.
"Developing a slots facility at Rocky Gap is nothing new," said Ehrlich adviser Paul E. Schurick. "There are two or three people who have expressed interest, a rather serious interest, in doing it. As far as we know, there is no specific proposal."
Turning Rocky Gap into a gambling complex wouldn't be easy. When the idea was raised last summer, it quickly encountered strong opposition from county leaders and state lawmakers who represent Allegany.
Sun staff writers Greg Garland and Jamie Smith Hopkins contributed to this article.
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