The three players bidding to build a new casino in Prince George's County have shown their hands, and the state will pick a winner by the end of December.
The stakes are high as the state prepares to hold a series of meetings beginning this week and culminating Dec. 20 to choose who gets to operate the state's closest casino to Washington. All three pitched casino resorts costing hundreds of millions of dollars to be built near where Interstate 95 crosses into Maryland.
The decision will be made by a special casino site-selection body, known as the Video Lottery Facility Location Commission, based on what it deems best for the state.
Some have said the bid by MGM Resorts International to build a $925 million resort casino on a bluff above the Potomac River at National Harbor and adjacent to I-95 is the front-runner simply because of its location, but others aren't so sure.
And the two other bidders sweetened their antes for the state. Penn National Gaming, which proposed building a $700 million facility at its Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington, promised an added $320 million for the county's health and education systems. Greenwood Racing, which proposed a $761 million facility nearby, said it would pay as much as $100 million for local road improvements.
David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said he has seen competitive bidding processes play out in other states, but it is still too difficult to predict a winner in Maryland.
"There's no way to really break it down as typical," he said, "because every state is unique, so every state has its own set of circumstances."
Although the winner may be up in the air, analysts say the casino will be a major driver of competition in the state's gambling industry.
"You're going to have the big three in Maryland," said James Karmel, an industry analyst and history professor at Harford Community College, referring to Maryland Live at Arundel Mills, the rising Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore and the future Prince George's facility.
"It's going to get fun if you're into competitive business," he said. "You're going to see them really compete with each other in the next few years."
While both the Horseshoe and Prince George's casinos will benefit from their proximity to major population centers, Maryland Live will likely retain a large percentage of its existing customers in the suburbs between Baltimore and Washington, Karmel said.
"If Maryland Live has everything that a poker player, a slots player, wants, and he lives in Columbia or Glen Burnie or Annapolis, why should that player drive to Prince George's County?" Karmel said.
The state's newest casino also will add to Maryland's overall ability to challenge neighboring states for gambling dollars, including Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New Jersey, Karmel said.
The Prince George's proposal was born out of that competition.
Two of the three current bidders spent about $80 million to sway public opinion ahead of last year's statewide referendum on whether to allow the state's sixth casino to be built in the county.
It hadn't been part of the state's initial approval of casino gambling. But politicians had pitched the casinos as way to keep Marylanders' gambling dollars in state.
On one side, MGM, keen on winning the new license, spent millions of dollars urging voters to approve the new site, promoting the benefits to the state's education system — a major beneficiary of the gambling expansion.
Penn National, keen on protecting its existing share of the gambling market at its casinos in Charles Town, W.Va., and Perryville in Cecil County, spent millions of its own trying to convince voters the deal was a backroom gamble of its own, with no promise of benefiting schools.
The ballot measure also included adding table games at all the state's casinos, in part to ease the competition the new Prince George's casino would create for the others.
The battle was the most expensive political campaign in Maryland's history.