The developer vying for the state's most lucrative slots license is wooing officials with visions of a billion-dollar entertainment complex at Arundel Mills that would include hotels, live entertainment venues and Maryland's largest casino - and says he has the money to pay for it.
David Cordish, president of the Baltimore-based Cordish Cos., sketched out his ambitions in an interview yesterday with The Baltimore Sun, in which he portrayed his plan as the silver lining in a mostly dim response from gambling developers this week.
Bidders are seeking just over a third of the 15,000 slot machine licenses legalized last year, a number that would sharply reduce the tax revenues state officials had hoped would balance future budgets.
"You want economic stimulus? Let the state give us the ball here," said Cordish. "We'll hire a couple of thousand construction workers immediately."
Cordish, who owns a home on Gibson Island, said he might employ the company's Live! brand - as in the Inner Harbor's Power Plant Live! - to create a regional destination that could feature name-brand attractions found at other Cordish projects around the country, such as a Hard Rock-themed concert facility or NASCAR-branded restaurant.
Reaction among Anne Arundel County politicians, mall neighbors and shoppers was mixed yesterday. Neighbors who live beside the sprawling mall vowed to fight the development, while County Executive John R. Leopold predicted that a required zoning bill would pass the County Council.
Cordish is competing with the owners of Laurel Park racetrack for the exclusive license to build a casino in Anne Arundel, one of five gambling locations authorized by voters in November. Magna Entertainment Corp., the track owner, failed to submit a required fee with its application this week, seriously jeopardizing the viability of its bid.
Donald Fry, chairman of the slots commission that will select the winning bidders, said yesterday that Cordish attorneys have demanded that the state immediately disqualify Magna's offer. The commission will take up the matter next week, Fry said.
Meanwhile, Magna announced yesterday that it had placed its $28.5 million license fee in an escrow account and would release it to the commission once certain refund guarantees are made. But the director of the Maryland Lottery, the regulating agency, has said the state will not deposit money paid after Monday's deadline. Magna's announcement "doesn't change the situation," Fry said.
The Canadian company's apparent failure to comply with the legal requirements of the bidding process makes a casino at Arundel Mills more likely, a surprising twist to a contentious years-long drive by slots boosters to place slots at racetracks.
Gov. Martin O'Malley and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said this week that they would have preferred slots to be located at the track, but Cordish argues that the state, county - and even the horse-racing industry - will benefit far more under his plan. All those entities would receive a slice of slots-related tax revenue under state law.
For Anne Arundel, Cordish has teamed up with renowned casino operator Dennis Gomes, dubbed "Mr. Fix It" by a New York Times columnist for his ability to turn bankrupt casinos into cash cows.
"There is not a location in the entire country that is as good as the one they've selected," said Gomes, who has run 13 casinos.
The mall's 1.3 million square feet of retail space - including a 24-screen cinema and Medieval Times dinner theater - is already a major tourist draw that will have a symbiotic relationship with a neighboring casino, Cordish said.
Though architectural drawings are not available, Cordish says the final product will have "extensive entertainment" and might resemble a combination of his Hard Rock-themed hotels and casino in Florida and the Forum Shops at Caesars, a 160-store mall on the Las Vegas Strip owned by Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group Inc.
He and mall owner Simon have not determined where the casino, garage and other new buildings would be placed, but they have committed to a physical separation from the mall.
"You'll have to consciously leave the mall and go to where this will be," Cordish said. "And you have to be an adult," with age restrictions enforced by "pleasant, enormous bouncers."
Officials have called the mall the state's busiest attraction, drawing as many as 14 million visitors in a year. Many of them are families who shop for fishing tackle and bounce youngsters on coin-operated rides, and some of those who live nearby are alarmed at the prospect of a massive mall-side casino.
"It's definitely not something I want to have down the street from where I'm raising my children," said Joseline Castonos, 36, of Chapel Ridge Village.
Joi Williams, who lives in the Villages of Dorchester, said much of the neighborhood is up in arms about the proposal: "We already have enough crime in the area because of the mall" that opened in 1999 amid residents' protests.
Williams said she had heard nothing about a slots parlor going to Arundel Mills until this week. She said that if slots come to Maryland, they should go to the Laurel racetrack location, where "they already have established gambling."
County Councilman Daryl Jones, a Democrat who represents the district that includes Arundel Mills, said he has "a lot of concern" about the proposed casino and plans to meet with community association presidents to discuss the matter.
Others were less concerned. Jeb Pair, 36, who said he eats at restaurants near the mall about twice a week, welcomed more entertainment options. "It would be fun," he said.
Cordish said he expected to have discussions with local officials and residents, but he expressed confidence that the required zoning changes would move through the County Council.
Leopold, the county executive, said he expects the council would find a way to allow for casinos at either the mall or Laurel Park, while accommodating the interests of residents.
At a time when gambling projects are being put on hold and major operators are facing bankruptcy, Cordish boasts of a debt load that is less than half the market value of his properties, and he said his company is "very liquid, cash-wise."
Under the law, Cordish would be required to invest at least $237.5 million in the casino, an amount he says he could "easily" pay with cash.
He estimated the entire development would come to about $1 billion and said he would be interested in adding more than the current maximum of 4,750 slot machines to an Anne Arundel casino. The slots commission could authorize that if market demand for machines in other jurisdictions is less than the legislature anticipated in 2007.
Heir to a family-run real estate business dating to 1910, David Cordish jumped into gaming when he developed two casinos for a Florida Indian tribe. The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino complexes in Tampa and Hollywood, Fla., opened in 2004, are considered among the more successful in the industry.
Gomes, whose early work as a Las Vegas gambling investigator was the basis for Martin Scorsese's film Casino, said he paired with Cordish because "he is one of the most dynamic developers" in the country: "I have always been able to perform way above the marketplace with gaming, and Dave has done the same thing with retail and all of his developments. I thought it would be a great, great combination."
ABOUT THE PLAN
David Cordish's vision for Maryland's largest casino operation:
* $1 billion casino, entertainment, retail and residential destination at Arundel Mills
* Break ground by the end of the year, providing 2,000 construction jobs
* Incorporate entertainment brands common at Cordish Cos. developments, such as Hard Rock, ESPNZone and NASCAR Sports Grille
* Physically separate mall from adults-only casino building
* Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casinos in Tampa and Hollywood, Fla.
Opened in 2004 and within three years had generated more than $1 billion in profits.
* Indiana Live! Near Indianapolis
A $500 million casino and horse racing track opens next month. Since 2007, has run a profitable temporary gambling facility - housed in a tent - on that site
* Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin casino in upstate New York
Developing a $750 million casino hotel in Sullivan County, N.Y. Unclear when it will open or what it will be named
* Hard Rock Casino and Cafe at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City
Promised a $705 million facility but recently withdrew its bid. David Cordish says he will reapply but would develop in phases.
* Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City, N.J.
Offered $700 million to buy the bankrupt casino from a state trustee but recently missed a deadline to purchase; unclear whether Cordish abandoned its plans there