About 10,000 gamblers, well-connected guests and curious local residents are expected to come to the city a week from tonight for the grand opening of the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, launching what city officials hope will be a powerful economic engine.
The debut will be a test for city officials and business leaders, who face a stack of logistical hurdles in the casino's first week.
Opening night of Maryland's fifth and most urban casino overlaps with an Orioles game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. There are six more home games the first week — including on Saturday, when the Navy football team also will be in town to play Ohio State at M&T Bank Stadium. The mix introduces transportation, parking and crowd control issues in the area, city and casino officials said.
Fully expecting the casino's new 3,353-spot parking garage to reach capacity on opening night and in the days following, transportation officials have created a temporary Charm City Circulator route for a week to shuttle gamblers and other casino visitors to and from downtown parking garages.
"We think the parking is going to be a big deal," said Frank Murphy, a senior adviser to the city's transportation department. "We have to tell people they can't park in the neighborhoods. Folks who come to the ball games are used to that, but people coming to the casino may not be."
Two years ago, more than 10,000 people attended the opening day of the Maryland Live casino at Arundel Mills. Trafffic was snarled, and thousands didn't make it inside.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said city officials have given "a lot of thought and effort" to making the launch a success, talking to community members and other stakeholders along the Russell Street corridor and beyond.
Opening night still won't go "100 percent right," she said, but officials are prepared to learn from any problems and adjust.
"A certain amount of this is actually doing it" and then seeing where the gaps are, she said.
The casino is set to open at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 26. Its garage will open at 8 p.m., with the first two levels reserved for valet and the seventh floor reserved for casino employees. The third through sixth floors are self-parking and free, except during major events at the football stadium — when parking will cost $50.
Murphy said part of the concern about parking shortages in the first days of operation is due to the limited amount of information on the casino's customer base and where it will come from. Casino officials said they expect Horseshoe will be a destination for people throughout the region, but also an attraction for local residents and commuters.
For the first few weeks, transportation officials will be monitoring how casino patrons arrive, whether by car, on foot from neighborhoods like Pigtown and Federal Hill, via Maryland Transit Administration bus lines or by light rail, ridesharing services or traditional taxis.
Alex Dixon, the casino's assistant general manager, said "only time will tell" how long the initial buzz will last.
"There's going to be an initial level of high demand and high interest until we get into a normal operating role and everyone has come and seen the property," he said.
The casino will be accessible on the MTA's No. 27 and No. 51 bus lines, and from the light rail's Hamburg Street station for those who don't mind a bit of a walk. The special Circulator for the first week of operations will pick riders up at existing Orange Line stops along Pratt Street that will be marked with casino signs. It will not stop between Pratt Street and the casino.
The special service will use two buses each from the Circulator's existing Orange and Green lines and will have a minimal effect on those routes, Murphy said. The transportation department doesn't have a budget to make the casino route permanent, he said, but it and casino officials will be gauging the Circulator's popularity.
Horseshoe is hoping for a big turnout, but also for manageable crowds, he said. Opening night likely will be packed, but later in the week crowds might thin at points during the day. Numbers of visitors will also be "wildly skewed" before and after sports events at the stadiums, he said.
Horseshoe plans to host tailgates in its outdoor entertainment plaza on days of football and baseball games to attract fans.
Greg Bader, a spokesman for the Orioles, said team officials "certainly are expecting a heavier traffic flow" around the stadium in the first few weeks of casino operations, "as people are figuring out their patterns for where to park and familiarizing themselves with how to get in and out of that building."
The Orioles will be communicating with fans about any problems, he said.
Roy Sommerhof, vice president of stadium operations for the Ravens, said in a statement that the Ravens also will keep fans informed about any stadium traffic problems. He said the team has partnered with Horseshoe to use the casino's parking garage on game days, with 500 spaces already reserved for the football season by Ravens season ticket holders.
Other fans can look into parking at the Horseshoe garage for single games through the Ravens website or parking contractor Parking Panda, he said.
Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, said he expects the casino's location near the stadiums and other attractions will make it a "great tourism generator" for the city.
Noonan said officials in Cleveland have told him the Horseshoe casino there booked 60,000 nightly hotel stays for its VIP customers alone in the first year of operations.
"And that's not including the Smith family, the Johnson family, who came in from Pennsylvania and bought their own room to go to the casino," Noonan said of non-VIP gamblers.
Noonan said the casino will direct its customers to restaurants and other downtown attractions, and in total could generate the same amount of economic activity as eight or nine major citywide conventions per year.
Rawlings-Blake said the casino is part of "a critical mass" of economic activity around the stadiums and downtown that is helping to revitalize the city's image.
"Around the country people are seeing Baltimore as a city that's growing, a city that's on the move, and when we are able to do these big things, like the casino, it only adds to that," she said.
Even after the initial enthusiasm for the casino dies down, Dixon said he expects about 10,000 vehicles a day to arrive at the casino, spread across its 24-hour operations.
Peak times will generally be following the afternoon commute on weekdays, and throughout the day on Saturdays and Sundays. He said there also could be a spike in customer arrivals in the early mornings on Saturday and Sunday, after bars in Federal Hill and other popular night spots close.
"I think there is going to be a natural demand for people to come to our facility, given the unique nature of our having a 24-hour liquor license, but I would not describe the casino as having a party atmosphere at that time," he said. "We plan to welcome those guests like we would anyone else, but they will have to adhere to our rules."
Horseshoe by the numbers
10,000 – estimated first-night guests
3,353 – parking spaces
1,700 – employees
2,500 – slot machines
100 – table games
24/7 – liquor license
$442 million – cost