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$250 million city casino proposed Roller coaster, hotel also planned for Inner Harbor


A Nevada company said yesterday it wants to build a $250-million Victorian-style casino along Baltimore's Inner Harbor, with a 1,000-room hotel, a concert arena, an indoor-outdoor roller coaster and two acres of gambling space.

Officials of Primadonna Resorts Inc. said they have been negotiating to secure the development rights to the Inner Harbor East property, which is between Little Italy and Fells Point.

If casino gambling wins approval from the state legislature, Primadonna hopes to build a waterfront structure that would complement the tourist attractions around the harbor, officials said.

"We want it to be a piece of the Baltimore crown of attractions," said William J. Paulos, president of the Las Vegas-based casino company. "We feel this additional entertainment venue would create great excitement for the area."

Mr. Paulos described the project last night for a task force headed by former U.S. Sen. Joseph D. Tydings that is studying casino gambling, which is expected to be a hotly debated issue when the General Assembly convenes in January.

At the last of its four public hearings, the task force heard sharply conflicting predictions of how casinos would affect the state.

* Citing data from other states, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. warned that casinos would cause crime to increase.

* Representatives of Maryland's racing industry made a two-pronged plea: Keep casinos out of Maryland, but if you approve them, put them only at the horse tracks.

* James L. Silvester, a Winchester, Va., businessman, outlined his plans for a mountaintop casino outside Cumberland to be developed jointly with the Absentee Shawnee Indian tribe, which once inhabited the area.

* And representatives of Harveys Casino Resorts laid out their plans for a casino on the bank of the Choptank River in Cambridge on the Eastern Shore, a project they said would pump life into the area's sagging economy.

Several casino companies are interested in a downtown Baltimore project, but Primadonna was the first to go public with any plans. Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was not available yesterday to comment on the proposal, but he has said that he opposes any casinos in the city.

Although Mr. Paulos said his company has not reached any formal agreement to secure rights to the Inner Harbor East property, he said Primadonna has an informal "understanding" with Baltimore bakery owner John Paterakis Sr., who owns most of the 20-acre tract.

"We have an understanding that he is Greek, and I am Greek, and he is a gentleman," Mr. Paulos said.

He added that Primadonna is interested in other sites in Baltimore, but that the Inner Harbor East property is the No. 1 choice. The property, which is considered by many to be the premier site for a large casino in downtown Baltimore, is bounded by Fleet Street on the north, Central Avenue on the east, and the harbor's edge to the south and west.

The Primadonna project would include 3,000 parking spaces, a 3,500-seat arena, a banquet hall, several restaurants including a micro-brewery, and some 60,000 square feet of retail space, about the size of one of the Inner Harbor pavilions. Children could spend time on a "world-class" roller coaster set out near the harbor's edge. "It's an overall family attraction," Mr. Paulos said.

One elected official quickly criticized any plan to put a casino near the Inner Harbor.

"There is no way I will accept nor will the communities accept placement of a casino in our neighborhoods," said Baltimore City Councilman John L. Cain, who represents Fells Point and much of East Baltimore.

Mr. Cain also said Inner Harbor East would be a particularly bad site because the city, state and federal governments have spent millions of dollars to improve the property in the last several years.

"I question the priorities," Mr. Cain said.

Richard Ingrao, a community activist in Little Italy, also vowed opposition.

"We need to think about getting people real jobs, not this fluff stuff," Mr. Ingrao said. "I think that's not what this city needs."

Primadonna officials have tried to sow goodwill by meeting with business people and others to explain their interest in Baltimore. Anticipating opposition from local restaurants, the company said would lease the casino's eateries to local restaurants.

"We understand the nervousness of these folks," Mr. Paulos said. "I'm happy to sit down with anyone and say we don't want to adversely affect other downtown businesses."

The nine-member task force, which was appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, is scheduled to make recommendations to them by Dec. 1.

In his testimony before the panel, Attorney General Curran summarized statistics showing that crime has gone up with the introduction of casinos elsewhere.

Along the Mississippi Gulf Coast -- the site of several casinos -- murder, rape, robbery and car theft have all doubled, Mr. Curran said. In Deadwood, S.D., arrests have increased more than 200 percent since casinos came, he said.

"We do not need to bring this upon ourselves," Mr. Curran said. "We already have crime problems in the state that sometimes seem insurmountable."

Joseph A. DeFrancis, president of Laurel and Pimlico race courses, said casinos would devastate the tracks as they have in other states.

"Competitive commercial gaming in the Baltimore-Washington corridor is like having a barrel of a .44-magnum right between our eyes," Mr. DeFrancis said.

But Mr. DeFrancis added that if the state wants to bring in casinos, "the only way to do it is to place the locus of the gambling at the race tracks."

Among the casino proponents was Dorchester County Commissioner Jeff Powell, who said he supports a proposal to bring gambling to Cambridge.

If another enterprise promised hundreds of jobs for the area, "we'd be doing leapfrogs trying to get that business for our small county," he said.

Both sides brought in out-of-town experts to argue the case. Among them was Lee Ann Barron, an analyst for Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles. "The bottom line is the costs significantly outweighed the benefits," Ms. Barron testified. Florida voters rejected casino gambling in 1994.

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