Analysis: Site called a boost for slots

Michael Cryor, a spokesman for the city developers, says both their plan and one for a casino near Arundel Mills are needed.
Michael Cryor, a spokesman for the city developers, says both their plan and one for a casino near Arundel Mills are needed. (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy Davis)
An expanded and relocated Baltimore casino on bustling Russell Street is expected to significantly boost the project's profits, and inject new momentum into the state's slots program, which to date has fallen below expectations.

Baltimore's developers are vowing to build the state's first slot-machine parlor, which will be several times larger than their original proposal and which, according to gambling industry analysts, likely will draw a wider clientele with an improved downtown location.

The new plan now places the casino on land that previously was slated for a sports complex, surprising developers who said they didn't know the parcel was available for a casino. And it also poses more competition to a casino that developer Cordish Cos. wants to build in Anne Arundel County, the largest and most ambitious of the four slots parlors proposed in the state, but one that is currently mired in zoning issues.

Jon Cordish, a vice president with the company, said that if bidders had understood that the city would make the Russell Street location available, the city site would have piqued more interest. Cordish said it would have affected his appraisal of the site as a slots location.

The Baltimore development group is racing to be the first to open in the state after voters approved slot machine gambling in November. That will give the city casino a crack at building loyalty among customers, analysts say.

"There is always an advantage in business to opening first," Cordish said in an e-mail. He declined to further discuss the revised Baltimore plans.

A legislative analysis shows considerable overlap between possible clientele for the casinos in Baltimore and Anne Arundel, assuming that residents would drive up to 50 miles to play the slots and considering the two sites are only about 10 miles apart.

But industry analysts said the area could easily support both. They said that casinos in Baltimore would largely draw residents of the city and its suburbs and Anne Arundel would attract residents from the Washington suburbs and further south.

"We are both competitors and comrades because the state needs us both to be successful," said Michael Cryor, a spokesman for the Baltimore City Entertainment Group that's planning the slots parlor.

In addition to wanting to be first off the starting block, the city project now promises to be grander in both size and ambition: Initially applying for 500 slots, BCEG now hopes for 3,750 machines in its bigger space and is considering other amenities like a nightclub or outdoor theater. The Cordish project calls for a 4,750-machine slots emporium next to Arundel Mills mall.

Cryor's group will have to pay an extra $19.5 million for the right to increase their bid for additional machines. They had paid $3 million in February with their initial application.

The state's slots commission is expected to decide later this fall whether to award the group a license. The commission also is reviewing bids at three other locations: in Anne Arundel, on the Eastern Shore and in Cecil County.

Cryor said his group had always hoped to strike a deal that would allow it to use the Russell Street land, which Cormony Development had an exclusive deal with the city to develop as a "sportsplex." Even as BCEG bid to create a 500-machine casino on a smaller nearby parcel, it was talking with Cormony about using its parcel.

"It was kind of a gamble on our part," Cryor said. "While we were convinced that we could make a go of the original gaming site, we felt it would be substantially improved if we could move it to a different location and if we had the opportunity to add additional entertainment product."

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon already has signed into law the needed zoning changes in Baltimore, and the city moved quickly over the summer to flatten an existing building on the site of the parlor.

As the plans begin to move forward, even past critics of erecting a slots parlor at the southern entrance to Baltimore City have become convinced of the project's potential.

State Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat who voted against the measure, said he's willing to work with developers and co-chairs the Local Development Council set up by state law to provide neighborhood protections for those affected by the casino. He says he wants the council to become a state model.

"Like slots or not, there are some benefits," Della said. "There is the potential to do some positive things with this over time. The state needs the revenue. The city needs a tax reduction."

Jeffrey Hooke, a Bethesda-based gambling analyst, said the revised plans that allow for a bigger site and parking next to the casino would boost profits by 10 to 15 percent annually - and could help draw financing and investors.

He said the old site might have forced developers to build a two-story casino instead of the favored one-story layout that gives visitors "a sense of grandeur." And it would have afforded less convenient parking options.

Increasing the parlor's profitablity could generate more money for a state that's facing budget shortfalls and a city that plans to use the revenue to reduce property taxes.

"I've always thought it was going to be a success in Baltimore; now it's going to be an even bigger success," Hooke said.

The optimism comes six months after tepid bidding for slots licenses at five locations around the state that were approved by the Maryland General Assembly and ratified by voters.