State's first slots casino could open early

After a successful trial run Saturday, the state's first slots casino in decades could open days ahead of schedule, officials said.

Nearly 1,400 invited guests ate, drank and pulled the levers on the 1,500 machines at the Hollywood Casino Perryville during the trial required by the Maryland State Lottery Agency to test the first of five slots parlors to open in the state.

The closed-door event amounted to a dress rehearsal for an industry that eventually is expected to generate thousands of jobs for Marylanders and contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to the state. Backers are betting the 34,000-square-foot casino will lure back Marylanders who have been gambling out of state while attracting travelers along Interstate 95.

"This is the first of what we expect to see in the state of Maryland over time," said Donald C. Fry, who is chairman of the state Video Lottery Facility Location Commission and president of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

"Obviously gaming is very competitive and people are looking for whatever the differentiation is," he said. "The fact that we are just entering the field is something people are going to be curious about and that will bring them out to see what product we have in the state."

Banned in the 1960s, slot-machine gambling returns to Maryland after years of often rancorous debate — while neighboring Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia lured the state's slots players with casinos of their own.

Maryland slots supporters won a 2008 referendum to approve slots at five locations in the state, but only the casinos in Perryville and at the Ocean Downs racetrack on the Eastern Shore are close to opening. Plans for parlors in Baltimore and at Arundel Mills have become entangled in legal challenges; the state has been unable to identify an acceptable bidder to operate one at Rocky Gap in Western Maryland.

In Perryville, officials at the movie-themed casino said the trial had gone smoothly and were talking about moving up the public launch, which has long been scheduled for Thursday.

"If the state signs off, we would potentially look at opening a few days earlier," general manager Himbert J. Sinopoli said.

Would-be gamblers who showed up in hopes of trying their luck Saturday were disappointed to learn that it remained closed to the public. For invitees, the casino operated as it would on a normal day, but its profits were to be divided among three charities: the Boys and Girls clubs of Harford and Cecil counties and the Community Fire Company of Perryville.

Brothers Michael and Matt Quinn secured invitations through their mother, who works for a state agency. The brothers said they live about a half-mile from the casino, and expect to be regular visitors.

Michael Quinn, 24, said he "burned through about $60," but predicted that the casino would still be good for entertainment. He said several unemployed friends had landed jobs at the casino.

Baltimore attorney Gene Shapiro, a fan of blackjack, said he prefers table games to slot machines. He visited with his wife and two friends.

"I'd still go," Shapiro said. "But it wouldn't be my first choice."

The focus on slots didn't bother Anna Burke. The 22-year-old ultrasound technician said there was enough gambling to enjoy herself without going broke. Her boyfriend took home $31 in winnings.

"I'm glad it's here," she said. "We'll definitely be coming back."

That's the sort of thing Vernon Thompson wants to hear. Thompson is Cecil County's director of economic development.

"There's the ever-optimistic and hopeful side of me that takes a look at both the casino and the surrounding development that's anticipated and hopes that this serves as a catalyst for further development in the western side of the county," he said.

His office will maintain a tourism kiosk at the casino aimed at drawing gamblers to spend some of their money at local attractions and businesses. The nearby Perryville Outlet Center has partnered with the casino to provide two shuttle buses to take gamblers to the stores and back.

"Of course, it will bring more traffic to the area, which will benefit everyone in our small community here," said Carol Brown, property manager at the outlet center. "They will probably benefit from our traffic as well because we are geared toward a lot of tour bus groups."

Local officials and business leaders are working to draw retailers, restaurants and entertainment venues to take advantage of the crowds. The real estate development firm that sold the 36-acre site to Penn National Gaming retains 100 acres adjacent to the property.

"As long as the state has talked about slots, we've envisioned a place like this in Cecil County," said Gary A. Stewart Jr., president of Stewart Associates. "We need to make sure the retail and entertainment venue and everything we put on the property is a complement to the casino."

For now, the most obvious economic impact of the casino is the 350 jobs it has provided. Eighty percent of the workers are from Cecil or Harford counties, which will benefit from their income and payroll taxes.

Kim Townley was unemployed for almost two years before she was hired as a server at the casino's Epic Buffet restaurant. The 38-year-old Elkton woman says she was the first person in line at the casino's job fair in May. Determined to land a position, she attended several information sessions. The casino received 5,000 applications, or more than 14 for each job available.

When she got her acceptance letter, "I was so excited, I was crying," she said. Townley started her job Sept. 7.

"This is not a job, it's a career," Townley said.

Former Maryland State Trooper Robert Nitz left a job as an internal investigator at Lancaster General Hospital in Pennsylvania to work as an operations shift manager. The lifelong Cecil County resident wanted to work closer to home as well as be part of something new and challenging.

Nitz's wife, April, works at the casino, too. Their commute is only 10 minutes.

"If you live in Cecil County, you're driving to Wilmington, Philadelphia, Baltimore to find a job," Nitz said. "To bring the jobs to the county is a great thing."

James Karmel, a history professor at Harford Community College who has written extensively on gambling, says that being the first slots parlor to open in the state gives the Hollywood Casino Perryville an advantage over its competitors to build a brand name and establish a customer base.

Sinopoli, the general manager, agrees.

"Any time you're first in the market, you have a great opportunity to set the standards," the casino general manager said.

Not that he doesn't have competitors. Delaware Park, only 30 miles away, offers table games in addition to slots.

Perryville casino marketing director Marc DeLeo doesn't appear worried. He says his casino has the advantages of being new, with all the machines on one floor, providing a comfortable playing environment for slots players.

"Our customer will be the core slots player," he said.

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