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As Horseshoe casino rises, officials work behind the scenes for smooth launch

The thud of nail guns and screech of drills echoed inside the cavernous shell of exposed cement, silver ventilation shafts and metal framing of the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore rising on Russell Street.

As cement trucks rumbled over stubborn patches of ice outside, Chad Barnhill, the casino's general manager, showed off what will be the 122,000-square-foot, two-story casino floor.

The work to raise the city's first and only casino is "progressing along very well" and is "on pace" for an August or September opening, despite the recent foul weather, Barnhill said.

Preparations for the $442 million casino's launch also are ramping up away from the construction site. Officials at Horseshoe — a subsidiary of Las Vegas-based Caesars Entertainment — are seeking partnerships with city hotels, working to bring in local restaurants and hosting local job fairs. City officials are hashing out transportation and security plans to launch the casino on a firm footing.

While the Horseshoe promises to become the city's next big tourist attraction, city and casino officials understand that defining and protecting the venue's image will be critical to its success.

"They want to make as big a splash as possible," said James Karmel, a gambling analyst and Harford Community College history professor.

The casino's management aims to leverage Horseshoe's proximity to other tourist attractions around the Inner Harbor, about a mile away, and the nearby stadiums.

"It's our biggest competitive advantage," Barnhill said.

Whereas the state's other casinos are in towns — Berlin, Cumberland, Hanover and Perryville — with little name recognition beyond the state, the Horseshoe Baltimore will be "easily recognized" by customers across the region and country, Barnhill said.

"You don't have to ask, 'Exactly where is that?' " Barnhill said. "There are a lot of ways to incorporate a love of Baltimore. The culture here in Baltimore is extremely friendly, in general, and it's very positive for us to be a part of it."

Horseshoe is coming late to the party. The state's established casinos already have built their customer bases. Maryland Live, nearby in Hanover, will have been open more than two years when Horseshoe opens and is by far the state's largest casino.

But Barnhill said Horseshoe is making up ground fast. It has issued a request for proposals from Baltimore hotels up and down the price spectrum to create package deals for overnight gamblers. A mix of "celebrity chef restaurants" and authentic Baltimore eateries are being lined up to "tie together what Baltimore has to offer," he said.

And progress is being made in the race to hire 1,700 casino employees, with special attention going to city residents and veterans. Another job fair is being held at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at Union Baptist Church on Druid Hill Avenue in Upton.

City officials, meanwhile, are planning to make sure the city's endemic problems — namely traffic and crime — don't harm the casino.

"We understand how important traffic concerns and, most importantly, safety concerns are regarding the location of the casino and people being able to enjoy the casino," said Kaliope Parthemos, the city's deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development. "So we are ensuring that we have taken all the appropriate steps to ensure that we don't have traffic problems and that crime isn't an issue or a concern in the area."

Lt. Eric Kowalczyk, a city police spokesman, said the Police Department has been working on a "comprehensive security plan" for the casino for more than a year.

Through a "public safety partnership that exists between city agencies and all the stakeholders" in the casino project, police are working to ensure their presence at the South Baltimore site is "comprehensive in nature" without "pulling resources from any other part of the city," Kowalczyk said.

Barnhill said casino officials also take safety seriously and will employ state-of-the-art security throughout the casino, its 3,500-space parking garage and the property — standard for Caesars venues.

Building a casino in a city like Baltimore hasn't changed Horseshoe's approach, he said, though it might change its messaging.

"It requires us to make sure that we communicate with the customers that this is as safe as any other place," he said. "We're very lucky we're right near the two ballparks. Customers are already comfortable coming down here."

City transportation and utility officials also are busy planning for the casino's opening.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. crews are diverting utility lines around the casino's footprint, a project that has closed lanes and complicated commutes on the busy Russell Street corridor.

Jim Harkness, the city's traffic chief, said the recent snow and cold snaps slowed the work, but crews remain on schedule to complete the project by the time the casino opens.

The city also redesigned traffic signals at intersections near the site to improve accessibility to the casino and traffic flow on Russell Street, he said.

Around the time of the casino's opening, the Transportation Department plans to deploy traffic officers near the site to manage an influx of patrons, Harkness said.

He said the initial "rush of exuberance" eventually should die down and hopes no unforeseen problems arise. Harkness said city officials are counting on casino traffic to peak at times distinct from rush-hour periods for commuters.

Karmel said Horseshoe and city officials are approaching the opening of the casino appropriately, from the focus on Baltimore-centric amenities to the planning to prevent potential problems.

Horseshoe's core customer base will be Baltimore and Baltimore County residents — and tourists to the city, Karmel said.

"I don't know how many of the Baltimore suburban-market casino players are going to gravitate to Horseshoe just because of the logistics of driving into Baltimore City compared to the relative ease of someone in Howard County getting to Maryland Live, or someone in Anne Arundel County doing that," he said. "They're going to have to maximize that urban market."

Karmel said he expects city leaders will devote huge amounts of resources toward the casino to avoid seeing a major economic engine be embarrassed early on.

"It's very important that it goes smoothly, because if it opens up and we hear about major traffic problems or parking problems, that's going to really be negative," he said. "One or two or more stories of people being assaulted or any kind of vandalism or break-ins around the casino would have a really debilitating effect."

In coming months, the building shell on Russell Street increasingly will start to resemble the flashy casino officials envision, Barnhill said. Decisions will be finalized about where the site's 2,500 slot machines, 100-plus table games and 25 poker tables will be located in the building, and Caesars' marketing will become more apparent.

As Horseshoe unveils more details about its plans — including an outdoor plaza for music and other events on Warner Street — Barnhill said he is confident its positive impact in the neighborhood will spread.

"We have a vision for how economic development could continue to spur this area," he said. "We see the potential for a whole new entertainment district on the south side here."

krector@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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