Tonight, Baltimore becomes a casino town. With the opening of the $442 million Horseshoe Casino Baltimore on Russell Street, the city enters an era of legalized slots, table games and poker that seemed impossible just a dozen years ago.
Back then, people were busy drawing lines — first no slots at racetracks; then maybe, but no table games; then state-regulated slots at five locations and then six, along with everything else. Voters got their say, both on the matter of expanded gambling and then the location of the state's largest casino, Maryland Live, at Arundel Mills. Even this newspaper's editorial board opposed slots until it didn't — convinced like most everyone else that the national wave of legalized gambling could no longer be barred at the state line, nor the benefits ignored.
What an awful lot of hopes and dreams are tied to this imposing edifice, this bunker-like bit of Las Vegas in South Baltimore, from the 1,700 new jobs it means for the city to the expectation of lower property taxes and better schools in the future. Like most promises associated with gambling, all that sounds too good to be true, but Maryland has already gotten a taste of the action with $1.82 billion in casino-related revenue since 2010.
It's understandable that high hopes brightly glitter this week like the Horseshoe's massive chandeliers. The investment was a long time coming (a 2011 opening was projected at one time, but that was a different ownership, development plan and lawsuit ago), and some of those payoffs are immediate including the hundreds of city residents who have secured jobs at the casino.
Will the Horseshoe be integrated as a tourist attraction with the neighboring stadiums and the downtown attractions including the convention center and hotels? Caesars Entertainment officials say that's their plan and the fact that the Horseshoe is a high-end attraction with celebrity chef restaurants and will eventually be a stop on the World Series of Poker which draws regular coverage on ESPN seems likely to make it so. Expect some gambling whales to mingle with the rest of us guppies.
It would be foolish, of course, to expect the casino will be Baltimore's economic salvation. That hasn't been the case in nearby Atlantic City where gambling is actually on the wane, beaten down by competition in surrounding states. Nor has it exactly transformed other economically-challenged urban centers including Detroit, which may be among the nation's largest gambling markets but still went into bankruptcy last year.
The potential for the casino to bring hardship to the families of gambling addicts is real as well. Studies have shown that most customers are drawn from within 10 miles of a casino and that includes a lot of neighborhoods where residents can scarcely afford to lose — and make no mistake, that's what casino customers are bound to do. To paraphrase the residents of "The Hunger Games'" fictional Panem, the odds are ever in the house's favor.
Meanwhile, the gambling competition will be vigorous, and not only from Maryland Live ,which has the advantage of size and easy access from multiple highways. In two years, MGM Resorts International will open its $950 million facility at National Harbor in Prince George's County that will steal away customers from the existing casinos as surely as the Horseshoe will be taking them from Pennsylvania and Delaware. How fitting that before Horseshoe even opened, it was already locked in a lawsuit with Maryland Live over allegations that a VIP hostess stole a list of high rollers from Maryland Live to steer whales to Baltimore. Clearly, the "games" have already begun.
As for the future, only one thing is certain: The rules of state-sponsored gambling are certain to evolve further. They already have here and elsewhere. What seemed unimaginable when Parris N. Glendening was Maryland's governor and opposed any expansion of legalized slot machines seems far less so when a full-size casino a stone's throw from the Inner Harbor has become a reality. Online gambling? Perhaps that's not a question of "if" so much as when.
That's not to rain on the Horseshoe's moment of glory, but like any responsible gambler (or gambling proponent), we believe some caution is in order. Baltimore should enter the casino era with its eyes wide open, hopeful that this latest tourist attraction will be a tremendous asset to the city but also wary that gambling's downside — from the addiction of the individual to the addiction of government on the tax revenue it generates — can be held in check.