An effort by some members of the Anne Arundel County Council to move a proposed slots parlor away from Arundel Mills mall has left the retail giant feeling "confused, disappointed and frustrated," a top company executive said Monday.
Joining a chorus of critics chastising the County Council for delaying zoning changes for a slots facility near the mall, Gregg M. Goodman, an executive with Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group Inc., urged council members to allow the project to go forward on "the one site that actually submitted everything correctly and by the rules.
"We've been good corporate citizens of the county," said Goodman, president of Simon's Mills division, in his first public comments on the Arundel slots proposal. "And we really do believe, to an extent, our rights are being trampled on."
Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. wants to build an entertainment complex with 4,750 slot machines on a portion of the mall's parking lot. The venue would become the largest and most lucrative of the five gambling locations approved by voters last fall, generating about $450 million yearly for the state and $30 million for the county, some studies show.
But for nine months, a divided seven-member County Council has delayed voting on the needed zoning changes, drawing rebukes from Gov. Martin O'Malley, County Executive John R. Leopold, the state panel awarding slots licenses and others.
Arundel council chairwoman Cathy Vitale, who is undecided on slots, introduced an alternative plan last month to place slots miles away from the mall, just south of Route 32 and far from Arundel Mills' residential neighbors, many of whom have fought to keep a casino away.
But the council has scheduled a vote in early December that could end the delay.
Vitale rejected the notion that her proposal is inappropriate, and said she and other council members have "agonized" over the right decision.
"One of the things I've learned over these past months, is the stakes are much higher in this multibillion-dollar gaming industry than I could have ever imagined," she said.
The Cordish Cos., which has entered into a long-term land lease with the Mills company to build the casino and a multilevel parking garage, has said it is confident it will receive the required zoning approval. Cordish has also scheduled a job fair at the mall later this week to find prospective workers for construction of the slots parlor and the parking garage.
Goodman wrote to council members and other officials last week in support of the casino, saying the project would enhance traffic flow, parking and security, and give mall customers more options such as upscale restaurants.
With security personnel hired by the casino, Goodman said, Arundel Mills would be "the safest place in town."
"Most municipalities that I deal with throughout the country love the fact that we're focused on our existing properties and trying to make them better," said Goodman, whose division oversees 16 large-scale malls nationwide. "It's somewhat disheartening to see a situation where certain members of the political spectrum seem more interested in seeing competitor projects be built versus stabilizing some of their best tax-producers."
Goodman declined to reveal financial details of the agreement between the mall and Cordish, but said it did not represent enough money "for us to just take any risk whatsoever" with one of the company's prime properties.
Goodman, whose company has experience combining retailing and gaming as owners of the Forum Shops at Caesars, which is attached to Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, said Arundel Mills has performed well during the economic downturn, maintains a 100-percent occupancy rate and is a top tourist attraction with the infrastructure that a large slots facility needs.
Mall neighbors argue that a legal covenant prevents construction of a casino, but Gene Condon, general manager of the Arundel Mills property, disagrees.
"Clearly there's a covenant that exists, and we have reviewed it with our counsel, and we feel we have every right to do what we are proposing to do," Condon said. "We certainly respect the concerns that the community has and we've tried, and I believe we have addressed all of their concerns" about parking, traffic and other issues, he said.