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Caesars-led group gets OK to run Baltimore casino

Maryland's casino program gathered momentum Tuesday as officials gave the go-ahead for a two-story casino near the Camden Yards stadium complex in Baltimore, even as the developers of a Western Maryland casino were allowed to scale back plans for Rocky Gap.

The state's Video Lottery Facility Location Commission awarded the license for Baltimore's casino to an affiliate of Caesars Entertainment, putting the city on track to open a gambling parlor in 2014. The company, CBAC Gaming, plans to operate 3,750 slots on a parcel off Russell Street downtown. It will operate under the name Harrah's Baltimore.

The commission also voted to let the Western Maryland group, Evitts Resort LLC, renovate existing space at Rocky Gap to open a slots parlor with 500 machines next year. The group couldn't get financing for a more ambitious plan to build a $62 million casino and hotel complex with 850 machines as an addition to the existing lodge.

"Financial markets are tough," said Tim Cope, a top official of Evitts' parent company.

The Baltimore license is the fifth awarded by the state under a law passed by the General Assembly in 2007 and approved by voters in 2008. The other licensees are the existing casinos at Perryville, Ocean Downs and Arundel Mills, and the planned facility at Rocky Gap.

The General Assembly is scheduled to meet in a special session Aug. 9 to decide whether to allow a sixth casino, to be located in Prince George's County. If that casino is approved, the legislature is also expected to authorize table games such as blackjack and roulette at all six casinos. Voters would get the final say in November. Currently, Maryland permits only slots.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake welcomed the license approval as "an important and positive step forward for Baltimore" and used the occasion to urge passage of a measure that would bring table games to the city, something Caesars strongly supports.

"Legislation under consideration for the special session will help make Baltimore's facility even more competitive, add hundreds of additional job opportunities, increase education funding, and help reduce property taxes," the mayor said.

Trevor Busche, a Caesars vice president, said the company will continue to press legislators for table games — as well as a cut in the slots tax rate to compensate for increased competition if a sixth casino is approved. That could put Caesars at odds with supporters of a casino at National Harbor in Prince George's, who have signaled that they would defer any request for a tax rate cut until next year to avoid making it an issue in the special session.

CBAC representatives told the commission they plan to build a two-story, glass-and-steel structure with slots, restaurants and bars. While Rawlings-Blake has expressed concern that a casino with no table games could turn out to be a "slots barn," Busche insisted it would be an attractive facility even without table games.

The commission's action on the Western Maryland plan came after the panel in April awarded Evitts a license to operate a casino with 850 slots at the golf resort, which has cost the state tens of millions of dollars since it opened in the 1990s.

Evitts is scheduled to close its deal to acquire Rocky Gap from the Maryland Economic Development Corp. later this week. Cope, chief financial officer of Lakes Entertainment of Minnetonka, Minn., said Evitts had tried for months to find a lender without success.

"As a start-up casino in a somewhat rural area, there is some doubt whether there are enough people up there to support the bigger project," he said.

Cope asked the panel to let it move forward with a 500-slots casino using the existing meeting space at the resort. He said Evitts would pay for the renovation, which he said would cost in the "high 20 millions," out of its own checkbook. He said the plan would let Evitts begin taking bets in the second quarter of 2013 — about a year earlier than the casino would have opened under the more ambitious plan.

The panel unanimously approved the request with the condition that Evitts close the deal with MEDCO by Friday.

Evitts expects to replace the lost meeting space within 36 months, Cope said. He added that the company hopes that once business starts up, it will be able to return to its original plans for 850 or more machines.

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