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Watch dealer's sleight of hand in Question 7 ad

Despite suggestion, Baltimore casino goes ahead even if voters reject law

Dan Rodricks

10:01 PM EDT, October 17, 2012

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So far this year, Maryland has been spared hurricanes and big tropical storms, but there's been a monsoon of television and radio advertising on both sides of the casino battle — approaching a cost of $50 million — to woo voters one way or the other. That's a state record, a grotesque orgy of corporate spending.

Perhaps you've tuned out by now.

I've been getting good at hitting the mute button whenever a Question 7 spot comes on.

But on Sunday, one that I hadn't seen before caught my eye.

In a commercial break during the telecast of the Ravens-Cowboys game, a man in a brown suit and tasteful tie appeared on the screen, his back to M&T Bank Stadium. "You hear a lot of talk about Question 7," he said. "So let me tell you what I know."

The man, standing on the large vacant lot south of the stadium, was identified as "Chad Barnhill, General Manager, HARRAH's Baltimore."

"If Question 7 passes," said Barnhill, "my company's gonna bring table games like blackjack and poker right here to Baltimore — a $25 million investment that will create 500 new jobs, all right here."

That's funny. Didn't we approve a casino for the city four years ago? And didn't Harrah's already agree to build it?

"Today," Barnhill went on, "Marylanders are spending $500 million gaming in other states. Let's keep it here."

Barnhill, with a rolled up blueprint in his hands, gestures around the vacant lot for a couple of unidentified onlookers. The phrase "Vote For Question 7" appears on the screen.

"I'm Chad Barnhill and we're ready to build right here. We're ready and it's real. And all that has to happen is Question 7."

Really?

Did I miss something? Isn't Harrah's going to build the casino anyway? This commercial certainly suggested the opposite — that construction of Baltimore's casino on Russell Street, south of the football stadium, turns on the outcome of Question 7 on Election Day.

For the record, here's the question you'll see on the ballot on Nov. 6:

"Do you favor the expansion of commercial gaming in the State of Maryland for the primary purpose of raising revenue for education to authorize video lottery operation licensees to operate 'table games' as defined by law; to increase from 15,000 to 16,500 the maximum number of video lottery terminals that may be operated in the State; and to increase from 5 to 6 the maximum number of video lottery operation licenses that may be awarded in the State and allow a video lottery facility to operate in Prince George's County?"

It's a lot of mumbo-jumbo.

Boiled down to just mumbo, we're being asked to do two things: Authorize live table games at the five slots casinos we approved at the polls in 2008 and approve a sixth casino in Prince George's County.

So when Chad Barnhill says his company — he actually works for Caesars Entertainment Group — "is gonna bring table games like blackjack and poker right here to Baltimore," he's technically correct. That only happens if Question 7 passes.

But given the blueprints in his hand and the scenes of construction flashing by, someone watching this commercial would certainly get the impression that nothing happens on the vacant lot on Russell Street unless we vote for Question 7.

It's deceiving, and I stated this in an email to the group behind the ad, but they had no response.

For the record, my fellow Marylanders:

Two months ago, the state's slots commission awarded a license to a group led by Caesars Entertainment to build and operate a "world-class casino" on the vacant parcel off Russell Street.

The group, CBAC Gaming, is licensed for 3,750 slot machines. It will operate under the name Harrah's Baltimore. The place is supposed to open in 2014. It's a $375 million investment.

In a recent City Hall briefing, Caesar's Entertainment President John Payne said the casino will be much bigger if Question 7 passes in the Nov. 6 referendum. The group will invest another $25 million, and add 500 jobs on top of the 1,200 already promised. There will be more restaurants, a room for World Series of Poker competitions, and an entertainment venue seating more than 500 people.

So, that must explain Barnhill's reference in the ad to a $25 million investment and 500 jobs if Question 7 passes.

Fine.

Except that if you weren't hip to all this and to what has already transpired, you'd have watched the Barnhill commercial and concluded that Caesar's won't even build the casino unless a majority of us vote for Question 7.

Not the case.

That was dealer's sleight-of-hand, friends, suggesting that there's more at stake on Election Day than we think. There's going to be a Harrah's in Baltimore, no matter how we vote.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com