County exec Baker's push for casino location met with opposition

Advocates for a Prince George's Countycasino faced off Wednesday, Feb. 22, as speakers at a hearing before the Maryland Senate Budget and Taxation Committee spent three hours debating whether National Harbor or Rosecroft Raceway would be the best location.

With only a few of the people who testified arguing against the idea altogether, it was easy to lose track of the purpose of the hearing: to convince state lawmakers that Maryland needs a sixth gaming facility and it should be located inPrince George's County.

District 23 Sen.DouglasJ.J. Peters, who represents South Laurel, is the lead sponsor of a bill that would authorize the state to issue a sixth video lottery operation license for a location inPrince George's Countywith 4,750 slot machines. The bill says the location must be "within 4 miles of the intersection of Bock Road and St. Barnabas Road." Both National Harbor and Rosecroft Raceway, which are about five miles apart, meet that requirement.

The bill would authorize all holders of a video lottery operation license to offer table games at their facilities. It would also increase the portion of the revenue the slots operators receive from 33 to 40 percent.

In Prince George's County, 5.5 percent of slots revenue would to go to a county Economic Development Incentive Fund and 2.5 percent to a state capital account that will be used to pay for the development and construction of a new hospital in the county.

If passed by the General Assembly, which would be a difficult feat given the hard stance the legislature has taken on expanding gambling since the approval of the original five slots locations in 2007, the provisions of the bill would have to be approved by voters in the November 2012 election.

Baker: Bring casinos to National Harbor

At the hearing Feb. 22, Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker III advocated for an amendment that would name National Harbor as the location for a casino in the county.

Baker has not traditionally been a proponent of slots, but he said one of the reasons he recently came around was "the opportunity for the site to create the economic catalyst for the entire region." He said a casino at National Harbor could produce billions of dollars in economic growth to the region.

Others testified in favor of the National Harbor location, expressing support for Baker's plan.

"Without doubt hotels in the region would see an increase in business, as the county executive referred to, as would restaurants, retail and another entertainment options," said Colin Reed, the chairman and CEO of Gaylord Entertainment, the Nashville-based company that owns the Gaylord National Resort Hotel and Convention Center in National Harbor.

Reed added: "(Baker) has laid out a proactive plan where everyone should benefit, including our business at National Harbor."

Peterson Companies founder and chairman Milton Peterson, whose company developed National Harbor, said if the legislature approves the casino for National Harbor, his company pledges to make it a success.

"It would not be shoddy, it would not be cute, it would not be glitzy," he said. "It would, I would say, just exude quality, and it would be stately."

Rallying around Rosecroft

Meanwhile, several people came out to push for an amendment that would name Rosecroft Raceway as the location for the casino.

"Not a day goes by that I don't get a call or a patron asks me about slots at Rosecroft," said Lisa Watts, the raceway's director of operations.

She added: "At one point, we were the largest employer in our district. We would like to be that again."

Steven Snyder, senior vice president of corporate development for Penn National Gaming, the company that purchased Rosecroft out of bankruptcy last year, said Rosecroft Raceway would be the "ideal location" for a gaming facility.

"It would help to revitalize one of Prince George's oldest communities, helping lift what has been a failing business to one that creates prosperity and opportunity in the community around us," he said.

Dan Myer, a representative of the Maryland Standardbred Breeders Association, said if the state does not take advantage of the opportunity to put slots at Rosecroft, it would be a blow to the horse racing industry.

"Slots belong at the racetracks where gaming already exists," he said. "This is the message we've been bringing down here since the first bill."

District 26 Sen.C. Anthony Muse, a Democrat who represents both National Harbor and Rosecroft, was one of the few to outright oppose the bill.

"It was the policy of this body that we would not jam gaming down the throats of those jurisdictions that objected," he said.

Muse said the proposal and the county executive's push for National Harbor as the location give the appearance of the "backroom deals that have somewhat plagued Prince George's County in the past." He suggested the legislature take its time and come up with a better bill in nine months.

Sen. Richard Madaleno, a Montgomery County Democrat who sits on the Budget and Taxation Committee, pointed out that if the bill isn't passed this year, it would be 2014 before any action could be taken because of the requirement that the issue must be put on the ballot for the voters to have final say.

"We're under a deadline very different than other bills," he said.

Prince George's County Council member Obie Patterson, whose District 8 also includes National Harbor and Rosecroft, also opposes the bill, which he called "grossly inadequate" and criticized for not including local impact aid for the county.

"At the end of the day, the locals are the ones who are going to be kicked in the hips," Patterson said.

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