Caesars, losing business at Horseshoe Casino to increased competition and Baltimore’s image problems, is doubling down on its bet on the city.
State land records show the casino’s partnership group is spending millions to buy up properties around the casino in South Baltimore to push a transformation of the gritty industrial area of warehouses and parking lots into a more inviting entertainment district.
Others are scouting the neighborhood, too, with the same vision.
The partners in a new Hammerjacks — the latest iteration of the venerable Baltimore concert hall and club, planned for 1300 Russell St. — say it will open in 2019. City officials say another group wants to build a high-tech golf driving range in the district.
The goal, ultimately, is to establish a sports and entertainment district that connects the casino through the football stadium and baseball park to the Inner Harbor.
The city “sees this as an area with great potential,” Baltimore Development Corp. President William H. Cole IV said.
Caesars, the Las Vegas-based casino and resort giant, said it hopes to create Baltimore’s “next great entertainment district” to lure Baltimoreans and tourists beyond the stadiums and Inner Harbor, but said it would be premature to discuss specific plans for its new properties.
Acquisitions include an old warehouse on Warner Street between Horseshoe and M&T Bank Stadium for $4.8 million and an office building across the street for $3.2 million. The partnership also has options on two city-owned parking lots on Ostend and Warner streets.
Horseshoe Casino Baltimore is adjusting to a state gambling landscape remade by the December 2016 opening of the $1.4 billion MGM National Harbor.
In the first full year since MGM opened in Prince George’s County — about 45 miles from Baltimore — Horseshoe saw revenue drop more than 16 percent year over year. It was hit particularly hard on table games, such as blackjack and roulette, a category in which MGM says it exceeded expectations. Horseshoe’s table games revenue fell nearly 22 percent.
MGM’s location — directly across the Potomac River from Virginia and close to Washington, both of which don’t permit casino gambling — allows it to draw from the entire region.
“We expected National Harbor would have an impact and it has,” Horseshoe general manager Erin Chamberlin wrote in an e-mail. “”We have short- and long-term plans to grow our business,” she said, including new restaurants and helping develop properties around the casino.
Industry analysts say the Baltimore casino also has been hurt by concerns of prospective visitors about the city’s safety. The city suffered 342 homicides in 2017, a per capita record, and USA Today recently declared Baltimore the nation’s most dangerous big city.
“It’s tough to attract customers with a city that has issues like Baltimore does,” analyst Alan Woinski said.
After three straight years with more than 300 homicides, Baltimore has seen a drop in violent crime to start 2018.
The 17 neighborhoods around the casino, known as the “South Baltimore Gateway,” collectively saw most crimes decrease from 2016 to 2017, according to police figures supplied by the city. The most common crimes last year were larceny, which went from 661 to 582, a 12 percent drop, and common assault, which fell from 481 to 421, also a 12 percent decline. There were 13 homicides in 2016 and eight in 2017.
Mayor Catherine Pugh was not made available for comment and her office didn’t directly address the question of whether concern about crime was hurting Horseshoe.
“It is our understanding that the attendance results for 2017 are fully in line with Horseshoe Casino’s business plan,” said James Bentley, Pugh’s deputy press secretary.
State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Democrat who represents South Baltimore, called Horseshoe “stable,” but acknowledged concern about crime.
“I am concerned if we don’t find a way to improve the ongoing safety and attractiveness of Baltimore City in the years ahead,” Ferguson said. “The level of concern I have for the casino is the same as for the small businesses in Fells Point or Federal Hill or Westport.”
Woinski, president of the industry newsletter publisher Gaming USA, said gamblers generally prefer regional casinos near their homes, and don’t want to worry about parking or safety.
Daniel Kay, who owns a small business in Silver Spring, likes Horseshoe because its windows allow more natural light than other casinos — it doesn’t feel “dark and gloomy.” But he now prefers MGM because it is closer to home, and there is a lot to do outside the casino at National Harbor.
Kay also said he is wary enough about Horseshoe’s location that “I never set foot outside of Horseshoe, not even to the gas station next door.”
Jake Rosenberg, a Washington-area blackjack and poker player who has sampled the area casinos, said it is all about convenience.
“If I lived closer to Horseshoe I would probably go more often that I do,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense for me to drive past MGM and Maryland Live to go to Horseshoe.”
Live Casino & Hotel in Anne Arundel County, formerly Maryland Live, has also been affected by MGM, seeing its revenue also eroded about 16 percent. The casino, adjacent to Arundel Mills mall, plans to open a 310-room hotel this spring.
The reality, Woinski said, “is every casino is the same. You go to your favorite games and play.”
But casinos can differentiate themselves with differing offerings, restaurants or entertainment — even the payouts or odds on games can vary slightly.
It has long been the city’s vision to link Downtown Baltimore and the Inner Harbor to a new entertainment district anchored by Horseshoe and the new Hammerjacks. But the area between the stadiums and the casino, with its industrial buildings, acres of parking and vacant lots, now feels less like a destination than a no-man’s land.
“You’d like to be able to have a seamless pedestrian experience so they can walk from downtown — any of the hotels, or from the convention center,” the BDC’s Cole said. “Imagine a walk where it’s vibrant from one end to the other.
“Now, you hit spots where there’s just not any activity.”
Plans for the area have been slow to develop.
The new Hammerjacks, in the works for years, received approval for a stadium liquor license in 2017.
Last week, Kevin Butler, president and CEO of Hammerjacks Entertainment Group, said: “We’ll be fully open in 2019.”
“You’ve got a billion dollars worth of stadiums as neighbors, the casino is now open and I envision this resembling a Bourbon Street atmosphere with restaurants and nightlife,” Butler said. “And there’s plenty of parking.”
The development can hardly come soon enough, said Ferguson, the state senator.