Baker backs casino in Prince George's

Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III is dropping the county's long-standing opposition to a casino within its borders and endorsing construction of a $1 billion, Las Vegas-style gambling palace at the riverside development known as National Harbor.

In taking that stand, Baker is explicitly rejecting the possibility of locating a casino at Rosecroft Raceway, the other leading contender for a gambling facility in the county. Aides said Baker prefers the National Harbor hotel-convention center complex because of its potential to draw tourists from all over the world on their visits to Washington.


"I have determined that if gaming comes to Prince George's County, it must be a high-end facility," Baker said Thursday.  "I believe we should develop a world-class destination facility that features gaming, live shows, dining and lodging."

The decision has statewide implications because any new facility that would open in Prince George's — particularly the type of destination facility that he envisions — would likely be viewed as competition by the existing and planned slots parlors in Maryland.


Among those potentially affected by the proposal are The Cordish Cos., owner of the soon-to-open 4,750-slot site at Arundel Mills, and Caesars Entertainment, which is seeking a license to build a 3,750-machine, high-end slots facility in Baltimore. Fierce opposition from Penn National Gaming, which owns Rosecroft, is a foregone conclusion.

Maryland voters, in a 2008 referendum, authorized slots casinos at five locations in the state.

Joe Weinberg, a spokesman for Cordish, said the company opposes any expansion of gambling in Maryland to a sixth location. He said the state should wait until the Baltimore and Arundel sites have opened and shown they can prosper before considering another site.

Jan Jones, a spokeswoman for Caesars, said her company would not automatically oppose a National Harbor casino but would need to know the details.

"We have no problem with six licenses as long as they're looking at how you create an economic [environment] for all the licensees to be successful and to obtain financing," she said.

Legislation backed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller would allow a casino at either National Harbor or Rosecroft and compensate other operators by authorizing table games and reducing the tax the state imposes on their revenue.

Baker's support for a casino in Prince George's might improve the chances the General Assembly would reach a consensus on expanding Maryland's current slots-only approach. Maryland does not now permit table games.

Much could depend on whether Baker and Miller can resolve key differences. Miller could not be reached for comment Thursday.


Even if Baker and Miller agree, any legislation to allow casinos at a new location could face significant hurdles in winning approval of House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Gov. Martin O'Malley, neither of whom have shown much enthusiasm for table games or additional sites.

Nevertheless, Baker's stance represents a significant change in the gambling debate in Annapolis. The former delegate, in his second year as county executive, is expected to work with his county's House and Senate delegations to win support for his plan.

Legislation introduced by Democrat Douglas J.J. Peters, chairman of the Prince George's Senate delegation, would open the door to a casino at Rosecroft or National Harbor. Miller, a Calvert County Democrat whose district extends into Prince George's, has backed that approach.

But an economic impact study conducted by the Prince George's government found that Rosecroft performed better than National Harbor in one respect — its ability to draw county residents. That is something the Baker administration, under pressure from local clergy to restrict gambling opportunities, does not want to do.

Baker's position could face scrutiny because it would, in effect, guarantee a lucrative gambling franchise to the owners of National Harbor, the Peterson Cos. But Baker is taking the position that the luxury development overlooking the Potomac just south of the Wilson Bridge is the only place that would achieve the county's goals.

Baker is rejecting a move by Miller to link approval of the casino to the financing of a $600 million plan to replace the Prince George's Hospital Center — a long-troubled, county-owned facility — with a state-of-the art teaching hospital affiliated with the University of Maryland Medical System.


Brad Frome, Baker's deputy chief of staff, said the county does not believe the state's share of financing the hospital deal — a matter of vital interest to the county — should be contingent on an expansion of gambling in Prince George's.

To do so, Frome said, would "send the wrong message."