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Baltimore opens shiny, new Horseshoe Casino

GamblingHorse RacingStephanie Rawlings-BlakePreakness StakesMartin O'Malley

Even on a normal night, casinos can assault the senses with glitz, flashing lights, showgirls, cocktails, high rollers, fancy food and blaring music.

So it follows that the long-awaited opening night of the $442 million Horseshoe Casino Baltimore would include all of those things — but magnified tenfold.

As gamblers and curiosity-seekers lined up to enter the building Tuesday night for the first time, VIPs were treated to a performance by a vertical dance troupe — men and women suspended from cables dancing and spinning up and down a high outside wall. Pop star Iggy Azalea appeared for a surprise performance.

The operators of Maryland's fifth casino were eager to make a splashy first impression for a crowd that included Gov. Martin O'Malley and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who praised the casino for hiring local employees.

About 1,250 of the casino's staff — nearly 51 percent — live in the city, Rawlings-Blake said at a news conference earlier Tuesday at a city career center.

"In order for this to really work," she said, "Baltimore City residents have to benefit by getting these jobs."

Before the casino doors opened to the public, O'Malley and other dignitaries gathered outdoors to pull a giant slot machine handle to launch fireworks and unfurl banners depicting major Baltimore events such as the first Preakness in 1873.

"Baltimore. It's your lucky day," each of the five banners read.

"I wish everyone good luck this evening," O'Malley said. He credited Caesars Entertainment Corp. "for doing it on time and getting it done."

Lawmakers in Annapolis debated whether to legalize casino gambling for years before voters endorsed slots in a 2008 referendum. The lure of increased jobs and property taxes made the casinos more palatable to opponents of gambling.

"There are people that aren't excited about gambling, and I am one of them," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat. "I have never gambled more than $5. But how can you put a price on jobs? We need jobs."

The Mayor's Office of Employment Development partnered with the casino to reach out to potential employees. On Tuesday night, Jasmine Jennings, 29, was celebrating not only the Horseshoe's opening but also a new job.

Jennings, the mother of two young children, said she had been unemployed for about 18 months before she waited in line for 51/2 hours to attend a hiring event in May.

She got a job as a "security ambassador" on the overnight shift. Her responsibilities include checking identification, performing cash drops and monitoring patrons' behavior.

"If there's a problem going on, we will try to defuse it," Jennings said. She wore a canary-yellow "Horseshoe" polo shirt and a continual smile. "They want people to be bubbly," she said.

Baltimore's deal with Horseshoe requires the casino to pay the city at least $11 million in lease and profit-sharing agreements and property taxes during the first year. The Baltimore casino joins the state's other four casinos in generating revenue for education, horse racing and other projects. They have raised nearly $1.82 billion since 2010, according to the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency.

The Baltimore casino features more than 100 table games and 2,500 slot machines, some on terraces outside to accommodate smokers. It also features a Baltimore-themed restaurant "marketplace" and a casino rarity — plenty of windows allowing in natural light. Some of the windows and terraces overlook M&T Bank Stadium.

Slots player Sheila Wilson, 58, of Burtonsville joined the first 50 patrons in what quickly became a long line to get in. The line started at Lot J, near M&T Bank Stadium. More than three hours later, she was nearly inside.

"I opened up [Maryland] Live," she said. "I wanted to open up this one."

After waiting for hours on a warm night, some visitors got into loud discussions with other guests or security guards about people cutting in line.

While many headed for slot machines, others gazed at the two-story video wall or watched sports on banks of television monitors. The Orioles game was showing on many screens. The casino hopes to attract Orioles and Ravens fans after home games.

The casino will compete directly with Maryland Live, 12 miles away at Arundel Mills mall. A promotional billboard for Maryland Live greets motorists above a street near the Horseshoe.

Chad Barnhill, the Horseshoe's general manager, said Tuesday that he would love to see "all of their customers come here."

Casinos are closing in Atlantic City, but Barnhill said the market in the Baltimore-Washington region is "vibrant. We're seeing numbers at Maryland Live that are certainly higher than what we expected."

The Arundel casino accumulated $58 million in revenue from slots and table games in July.

Last year, Maryland Live opened a 52-table poker room. The Horseshoe will host a qualifying stop for the World Series of Poker.

Management says the Horseshoe's location makes it unique. It holds the city's only 24-7 liquor license.

Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, the chairman of Rock Gaming — a project partner — told VIPs Tuesday that the Horseshoe is "the first true urban casino on the Eastern seaboard."

jebarker@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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GamblingHorse RacingStephanie Rawlings-BlakePreakness StakesMartin O'Malley
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