Forget the presents and cake — the Hollywood Casino Perryville, which will mark its first anniversary this Tuesday, plans to celebrate with a huge giveaway.
But the casino's first year hasn't been all sweet, even though its slot machines attracted some $1 billion in action from gamblers and have produced a $101 million-plus windfall for owner Penn National Gaming, the state of Maryland and the state's ailing horse racing industry.
There has been continuous squabbling in Cecil County about how the local share of casino revenue will be divided between the county and the Town of Perryville, to the point where not one dollar has been allocated or spent by either in the 12 months the casino has been open.
And in Perryville, where the town government made a concerted effort to welcome the casino, an uproar continues among residents about the casino's efforts to erect a 175-high illuminated sign along I-95 that will be visible from many of their homes.
But there's also been a big positive economic impact to the community around the casino, which has some 400 full- and part-time employees, most of whom were hired from Cecil and Harford counties, according to Penn National Gaming.
Since opening on Sept. 27, 2010 near the Route 222/I-95 interchange, Maryland's first licensed public slots venue since the 1960s has been one of the most talked about businesses in Harford and Cecil counties, if not the most visited.
During its first four days of operation, the casino made more than $2 million in revenue, according to the Maryland State Lottery. During its first month, each of the 1,500 slot machines brought in, on average, $346 per day, more than the state's projected average of $210 per machine per day.
More recently, the casino's slots have been averaging $212.51 per day in revenue, according to Cecil County budget manager Craig Whiteford, quite a decline from what might be considered its honeymoon period but still within the realm of what was predicted.
"My expectation based on that is that it [the casino] performed better than expected," Whiteford said, referring to meeting the state's expectations.
Through August, according to its owner, Hollywood Casino Perryville has generated about $101 million in gross gaming revenue. That figure is likely to climb to about $110 million by the time the casino celebrates its first birthday Tuesday.
Marc DeLeo, director of marketing for Hollywood Casino Perryville, said his company, Penn National Gaming, which owns a number of casinos and race tracks, is satisfied with Perryville's performance.
"From our standpoint, we feel we've exceeded the company's expectations," DeLeo said of the casino's first year.
So far the casino has gotten good feedback from its guests, DeLeo added, noting they did make some tweaks early on after listening to people's comments.
He more denominations for the slot machines — 25 cents and $1 — were added and the pricing of some of the food outlets were changed. The big thing, he went on, was the ability to comp customers for drinks and food through loyalty programs.
"When [people] play at slots they can earn comps, like, at the restaurant or bar," DeLeo said. "It makes you feel like you're getting more for your money."
For the big first anniversary, DeLeo said the casino will be holding a giveaway at 11 p.m. Saturday. The prizes up for grabs: a Chrysler 300 or $20,000 in cash. Whoever wins has the choice of either prize.
The casino hopes to continue these sort of promotions during its second year, as well as continue their "great customer service," DeLeo said.
The 5.5 percent share of gross gaming revenue due Cecil County for what the slots law calls "local impact grants" is supposed to be split 65 percent to the county and 35 percent to Perryville, a deal that was stuck when it was believed Perryville would incur infrastructure costs early as the casino was built.
In the casino's first year, the local revenue share will be almost $6 million. But things tend to get complicated when money is involved.
The county, whose leadership underwent a major change after last fall's election, now wants the town to agree to a clause that would end the share agreement in three years, leaving the county in control of all the money.
The two are still in talks to renegotiate the deal. While they continue to squabble, none of the money is being used. Conversely, in Worcester County, where the Ocean Downs casino didn't open until January, some local impact funds have already been distributed for specific projects.
Earlier this week it was announced that county and town officials will be in Perryville this Tuesday – on the casino's first anniversary – to discuss the revenue sharing agreement again. The meet starts at 6:30 p.m. at Perryville Town Hall.
"The town's hope is that we can agree with the county on not only the terms of that agreement, and it would certainly be longer than three years, but also, whatever that time period happens to be, if it's not in perpetuity, some logical process to be set up to deal with what happens at the end of that period," Perryville Mayor Jim Eberhardt said.
The county, he explained, "were the ones who voted for the three years and that was unacceptable."
Eberhardt was hesitant to give a definite time period the town would be negotiating for, but when asked if it would be around 15 years, he replied, "Probably so." That figure has come up at recent town meetings.
Where the number comes from, Eberhardt said, is the initial state legislation regarding the percentage of money Pimlico Race Course and Rosecroft Raceway would receive and that the state would revisit that percentage in 15 years. The neighborhoods around the two horse tracks receive a share of revenue from all casino locations.
Cecil County Administrator Al Wein said Wednesday he believes the county commissioners are "willing to discuss the specific terms around a 15-year agreement" during next week's meeting.
The positive, the negative
Despite the contention between Cecil County and Perryville, Eberhardt said the dispute "does not reflect any opinion or concerns about Hollywood Casino [or] Penn National Gaming."
Eberhardt is pretty happy with what the casino has done for the town.
"They've pretty much done what they said they would do," he said, adding that Hollywood Casino has provided "substantial jobs for the area," as well as another place to eat in town and entertainment.
When Penn National started hiring for the casino in May of 2010, a job fair at the Perryville Outlet Center drew an estimated 1,600 people. Penn National says more than 4,500 people initially applied to work at the casino.
But not all residents have positive things to say about the casino.
During town meetings and work sessions, several residents have been vocal about their anger toward a proposed 175-foot illuminated Hollywood Casino sign that would attract traffic from I-95. Beacon Point residents believe the sign would be visible from their homes and become a nuisance.
Eberhardt says this "situation is not unique to Perryville," explaining he's also heard positives comments from people about the sign and the casino in general.
"If people have a problem with an issue, they're likely to come out and tell you about it. If people don't have a problem, they're not likely to come out to the meeting and tell you about the issue," he said.
Cecil administrator Wein also believes the casino has met the county's expectations.
"Their [Penn National's] initial projection was $200 per day per machine and I think they exceeded or came close to that," Wein said. He said many nonprofit organizations in Cecil have also benefited from the casino.
"There was a community development grant, which the county committed $500,000 to, and it was a competitive application process," he said, adding that not all the requests could be honored but more money will be made available in the future. Both the town of Port Deposit just north of the casino and one of the local volunteer fire companies serving the area are due to receive more than $100,000 from the first round of grants.
"My hope is the facility continues to prosper and the county continues to benefit from its existence from the work of the local development council," Wein said of the local group that screens requests for grants from the casino revenue.