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Cordish, anti-mall group wage battle over Arundel Mills slots referendum

Arms full of campaign brochures and colorful maps of the proposed casino near Arundel Mills mall, the wiry man with wavy gray hair is bounding up the block of tidy homes in Brooklyn, making his pitch.

He skips the house with the "Beware of the dog" sign, but opens gate latches and pounds on doors with the vigor of a seasoned politician.

When one opens, he extends his hand and says, "Hi, I'm David Cordish. Can I talk to you about the slots?"

That a 70-year-old billionaire developer is spending his evenings and weekends knocking on doors like a candidate for the local school board says much about the stakes in next month's referendum in Anne Arundel County that will decide whether Cordish's lavish slots parlor can be built.

Cordish and those who are opposed to the mall project have mounted aggressive campaigns, spending a combined $6 million so far to influence an election in which up to 320,000 eligible voters will decide the fate of Maryland's largest and potentially most lucrative gambling project.

Opponents of the mall casino project, a group called No Slots at the Mall, have flooded the airwaves with a half-dozen television ads, airing almost nonstop. The pro-mall contingent has also run several spots, and even posted a billboard that can be seen from Interstate 95 in Baltimore. But it's not yet clear which side has the momentum.

Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Politics at Anne Arundel Community College, said a poll he's completing on the issue shows little movement from an earlier survey that found a 50-50 split.

"I'm a little bit surprised that the pro-slots position hasn't been able to sway more people," said Nataf. "With the economy where it is, with the appeal of job creation and providing a perceived cost-free solution, to not be leading by a mile is confusing."

Cordish, head of the Baltimore-based Cordish Cos., is working to win voters one at a time.

Wearing a Johns Hopkins University lacrosse jacket — he was a member of the school's 1959 championship team — he was greeted like a celebrity on a recent brisk evening just before dusk. Some residents said they had seen him on TV.

Emily Perry, a married mother of a 4-year-old daughter, tells Cordish that she has concerns about going to the mall and seeing slot machines, a message she's gotten from opposition ads. Cordish explains the casino will be in a separate building, pointing to a map of the plans.

"Oh, that makes a big difference," said Perry. "You have to explain that to people."

In the end, though, Perry, who doesn't gamble, said she's still undecided.

By most accounts, both sides have run effective campaigns.

Cordish, through his campaign committee Jobs & Revenue for Anne Arundel County, has won the backing of county teachers, police and firefighters, pounding home the message that the project will bring jobs to the county and much-needed revenue at a time of cutbacks in state and local spending. He repeatedly trumpets estimates that the casino would generate millions for education and create thousands of jobs.

Opponents are reaching beyond their base of supporters who live near the mall and those opposed to gambling on principle, gaining traction with their message that gambling doesn't belong at a "family-friendly" venue like a shopping mall. The group, which boasts support from dozens of community and civic groups, also warns of more traffic jams and an uptick in crime at Arundel Mills.

Cordish Cos. and the mall's parent company have committed $2.6 million so far. The Maryland Jockey Club has spent $3.2 million, hoping to eventually steer the casino to the Laurel Park race course.

The efforts culminate on Nov. 2, when Anne Arundel voters, who will also be weighing in on the county executive and governor's races, will decide Question A, which asks voters whether a zoning bill passed by the County Council to allow the mall project should stand.

Voters statewide approved a constitutional amendment in 2008 allowing 15,000 slot machines at five sites throughout the state. But the program has lagged.

Just one casino has opened: a 1,500-unit slots parlor in Cecil County. Plans for a large-scale casino in Baltimore foundered after the company bidding on the license failed to come up with the necessary upfront financing.

The proposed Arundel Mills casino, projected to be the state's most lucrative with 4,750 machines, and its prime location between Baltimore and Washington, has been mired in controversy from the outset.

Many were surprised when Cordish was awarded the Arundel license by a state commission. Gov. Martin O'Malley and many others supported slots predominantly at racing locations. But the owners of the track failed to meet the bid requirements for a license.

If Question A passes, Cordish faces just a few relatively minor steps before he can construct his planned $1 billion casino and entertainment complex, featuring a 300-seat live music venue and four sit-down restaurants. Cordish's application for a building permit is pending before the county, and the company would need final approval from the state lottery commission.

A win for the other side would make the outcome less clear.

While Cordish Cos. would still hold the license it was granted by the state Video Lottery Facility Location Commission, the permission is contingent on county zoning approval. The developer would have to go back to the County Council and seek new zoning permission, either for Arundel Mills or another site, a process that took 10 months the first time.

But at least five of seven council members are not returning after the election, so how the panel would vote is unknown.

Tom Chuckas, president of the Jockey Club, which operates Laurel Park, paints a bleak picture if Cordish's side wins. At least one of his group's properties — Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course or a training center in Prince George's County — would have to close, he said.

"Maryland thoroughbred racing would go through a change and not look like in any way it does today — and not for the positive," said Chuckas, adding that he would welcome a chance to bid again for the Arundel license.

Donald Fry, chairman of the location commission that awards slots licenses, doesn't appear to want to reopen the process quickly.

Fry said in a recent interview that the commission would not immediately move to strip the Cordish Cos. of its license if the zoning is rejected at referendum.

"It is certainly frustrating there are delays as we try to move this process forward," Fry said. "It's our job to try to implement this law. We're trying to get these facilities open as soon as possible. The referendum is something that the voters are entitled to, but it certainly complicates our process to move forward as quickly as possible."

Further complicating the matter is the presence of the Jockey Club's new business partner, Penn National Gaming.

The Pennsylvania-based gaming powerhouse owns and operates Maryland's newly opened casino in Perryville, and state law doesn't allow one company to hold more than one slots license.

For the Jockey Club to operate slots at Laurel Park, Penn National would have to transfer the Perryville license, which requires state approval. Or the club could seek a change in state law, a lengthy and uncertain process.

If the Jockey Club made it that far, it would likely face the same hurdles as Cordish in getting zoning approval. A newly formed Laurel-area community group, calling itself No Casino at Russett, has begun pushing back against the message of Laurel Park as an alternative to the mall.

James Karmel, a history professor at Harford Community College and owner of a Bel Air-based gaming consulting firm, Gaming Atlantic, which has not done work with either side, says the anti-mall campaign has been effective in driving a concise message with frequency — airing television commercials at what he estimated was a 5-to-1 advantage.

"The anti-Arundel commercials have been pretty well produced," Karmel said. "They seem to be doing a pretty good job of imparting a simple, clear message — the mall isn't a good location for slots. But the other message they're putting forth, that's far from a given. It's slightly misleading to imply that if you vote against them at Arundel Mills, they will automatically go to Laurel."

But Karmel praised Cordish's strategy for its "well-timed" announcement last week that the casino will offer "high-quality entertainment and dining options." Cordish unveiled several potential restaurants, including the Cheesecake Factory and Ruth's Chris Steak House.

"It's smart to show the whole package that a casino can offer," he said.

On the street, where Cordish was wooing supporters, Bryan Lindung, a carpentry contractor, earned a high-five from the developer when he said the project is "going to bring jobs into Maryland."

"We've been around a long time," said Cordish, referring to the company founded by his grandfather a century ago. "We're not going anywhere. We'll figure out the best way to utilize the license. … But if we're not successful with this referendum, the loser will be Anne Arundel County and the teachers … because we will be set back for years."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

Wording of local referendum Question A on the Anne Arundel County Nov. 2 ballot

Zoning, Video Lottery Facilities

Video Lottery Facilities are not permitted anywhere in Anne Arundel County under current zoning law. Bill No. 82-09 is a zoning bill and was enacted for the purpose of allowing a Video Lottery Facility as a conditional use in a W-1 Industrial Park zoning district or at a Regional Commercial Complex. Vote "For Bill 82-09" if you want Bill 82-09 to take effect. Vote "Against Bill 82-09" if you do not want Bill 82-09 to take effect.

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