Cordish Cos. may enter slots license competition

Baltimore based Cordish Cos., which has built signature projects in the Inner Harbor and casinos in Florida, might compete for a slots license in Maryland if voters approve a November referendum legalizing the gambling machines, officials said.

In an e-mail to The Baltimore Sun, company chief David Cordish said his gambling division would "look hard" at possible licenses in the city, Anne Arundel County and Cecil County. "Gaming is one of our three major divisions, and these three locations are in our backyard and are well suited to our capabilities," Cordish wrote.

Cordish's entrance into a widening field of would-be gambling operators in Maryland intensifies competition for the five potential licenses in the state and raises the possibility that at least some of the slots parlors could become large entertainment complexes.

The multibillion-dollar conglomerate known for its Hard Rock-themed hotels and casinos in Florida - and Power Plant Live! entertainment district downtown - "would want to put a project together that has some staying power," said Joseph Fath, a gambling analyst at T. Rowe Price Group Inc. "They are redevelopment people who don't want to just build boxes with slots. They would look at adding restaurants, retail, a hotel."

In November, voters will decide whether to amend the Maryland Constitution to authorize up to 15,000 slot machines at five locations across the state.

Cordish is the first gambling developer other than racetrack owner Magna Entertainment Corp. to express an interest in the largest potential slots license, the one designated for Anne Arundel County, which appears targeted to Magna-owned Laurel Park. Under legislation passed by the General Assembly last year, that slots facility, which could contain as many as 4,750 gambling machines, could also be built near Arundel Mills mall.

"Obviously, you're concerned about competition, but I think we believe that if the referendum passes, we have the best site and will produce a top-notch proposal," said Mike Gathagan, a spokesman for Magna's Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park.

This week, Magna announced that it has secured permission from its parent company to use up to $2 million to encourage voters to authorize slots, and the Canadian company is expected to mount an aggressive bid for slots at Laurel.

In Cecil County, Cordish would probably have to compete for the slots license with national casino operator Penn National Gaming Inc., which has secured an option to buy land in the area designated as a potential slots site. Penn National owns Charles Town Races and Slots in West Virginia.

Cordish is the first developer to publicly express an interest in the downtown Baltimore slots site, which would host as many as 3,750 machines on city-owned land. Under a law that would be triggered if voters approve slots, each slots license would have to go to a separate entity, so while Cordish's company might bid on multiple licenses, it could be awarded only one. Slots licenses would be granted by a seven-member commission appointed by the governor and leaders of the state Senate and House of Delegates.

Democratic leaders in Annapolis are hoping slots-related tax revenue will plug a growing hole in the state budget, but Fath warns that if the current credit crunch continues, it could dampen enthusiasm among gambling companies, which would be required to invest millions to qualify for the licenses. "I would challenge anyone in this environment who is trying to raise capital," the analyst said. "Even if you have a clean balance sheet, you can't get the capital."

Applicants for licenses must invest $25 million in construction costs for every 500 slot machines they propose to operate.

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