Installation of the first set of slots moved Maryland Live! Casino, the state's largest, another step closer to its scheduled opening in three months. That's progress for Maryland's lackluster gambling program, which has yet to be fully implemented more than three years after voters approved five slots locations statewide.
In Annapolis, state lawmakers are considering bills to expand gambling in the state, a move supporters say is vital to remain competitive in the Mid-Atlantic region, where states such as West Virginia and Pennsylvania offer both slots and table gambling. State officials are also considering bids for casinos in Baltimore and Western Maryland, which would round out the gaming program under the current law.
"It's a major milestone when you see these machines," said Robert Norton, general manager of Maryland Live!, as workers installed the first of what will be 4,750 video terminals. "It starts to feel and act like the world-class gaming place it will be."
The state's two casinos — Hollywood Casino Perryville and the Casino at Ocean Downs near Ocean City — have been generating far less revenue than expected. Last fall, state budget analysts reduced projections for slots revenue over the next five years by 12 percent, or $474.3 million, citing the shaky economy, competition and the performance of the two existing casinos.
While they've lagged behind projections, the two casinos brought in more revenue in the first two months of this year than they did a year ago, according to the Maryland Lottery.
Donald C. Fry, head of the state's slots commission, said he expects Maryland will make a decision by late March or early April on Evitts Resort LLC's application to open a casino in Rocky Gap. It will be May or June, he said, before there is a decision on Caesars Entertainment's license in Baltimore.
A House committee is scheduled to consider legislation Friday that would add table games such as poker and a sixth slots location in Prince George's County, where there is disagreement over a site. County Executive Rushern Baker is backing National Harbor as the only acceptable site for a casino in the county, while casino operator Penn National Gaming, which owns the Cecil County slots parlor, is lobbying for Rosecroft Raceway.
Richard Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute, said it's still too early to judge the success of the state's slots program.
"I'm not surprised. given the structure of gaming in Maryland, including the high tax rate and the overall poor state of the economy, that the [casinos] are behind what the forecasts were," said Clinch, whose institute has worked for gaming companies in the past. "Let's take a wait-and-see approach. As the economy picks up, demand will pick up."
The Cordish Cos., developer of the Arundel Mills casino, "vehemently oppose" expanding the slots program to a sixth location, said managing partner Joe Weinberg, who is overseeing the casino's design, construction and operations.
A Prince George's County site would saturate the market with too many slot machines but not enough demand, Weinberg said.
"The most important and sane approach is to allow table games at the five approved locations," he said.
Inside what will be the 300,000-square-feet Maryland Live! casino, several dozen construction workers prepared sections for the two bars and space for restaurants that will include the Cheesecake Factory, Bobby's Burger Palace and the Prime Rib.
The casino will initially open with about 3,100 machines and an adjacent 5,000-space parking garage in early June. The remaining 1,650 machines will be in place by the end of the year.
The grand opening date will be announced soon, Norton said.
About 2,000 machines have been stored at an off-site warehouse, where they have been tested by casino and Maryland Lottery officials, he said.
The state is spending $168 million to lease the machines for the Arundel facility.
Installing all the slots on the casino floor will take a month, Norton said. The machines will feature electronic table games such as blackjack and roulette as well as Monopoly, Wheel of Fortune and Sex and the City.
Showing off the casino Wednesday, Weinberg said it would evoke a warm, comfortable environment for gamblers. Casino officials purposely avoided creating a themed facility, instead focusing on a modern, upscale decor, he said.
The casino is still hiring for its 1,500-person workforce. In conjunction with the Anne Arundel Workforce Development Corp., the casino is holding a job fair Saturday at its nearby employment center at 7270 Park Circle Drive, Hanover.
Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.