City's eye on slots site

An 11-acre warehouse district south of Baltimore's sports stadiums would become the home of a new slots facility under a proposal by Mayor Sheila Dixon's administration that officials said could cut city property taxes, The Sun has learned.

If the statewide proposal to legalize slot machines is approved, Dixon would push the site - which is owned almost entirely by the city - as the best option to keep gambling out of residential neighborhoods and give Baltimore greater control over the facility's operation.

As part of the proposal, the city would rent the land to a private company and use the proceeds to reduce Baltimore's property tax rate and help build 10 schools.

Though preliminary, details of the arrangement demonstrate the stakes that local officials have been wrestling with - and the jockeying that has taken place - since Gov. Martin O'Malley announced that he would push expanded gambling in the special session of the General Assembly that began this week. If approved, the bill would allow up to 15,000 machines at five Maryland sites, including Baltimore.

"At the right location and under the appropriate conditions, a slots facility in Baltimore City could bring about a trifecta of opportunity," Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank said in a statement, "additional revenue to reduce property taxes and build new schools, quality jobs for city residents, and an expanded tourism base."

Legislation unveiled by the O'Malley administration last week requires the Baltimore slots site to be within a half-mile of Interstate 95 and Route 295 and at least a quarter-mile from residential areas. Documents obtained by The Sun yesterday narrowed that to a more specific waterfront site along the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

Loosely bounded by Russell Street and the Patapsco and south of M&T Bank Stadium, the site is known as Gateway South. The city has been acquiring land in the area for years and is conducting exclusive negotiations with Cormony Development to build office space and a sports complex there.

Both M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., which negotiated the deal, and Samuel Polakoff, managing director of Cormony, said they are moving forward with the Cormony project. Polakoff added that his company has not been involved in any discussions on slots.

"Even if this measure passes, there will be a year of advocacy groups on both sides of the issue lobbying for voter support," Polakoff said. "Come November 2008, voters will vote on this, and not until then will we know that any of this is even a reality."

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis is a partner in the $200 million development proposal. It would include nearly a million square feet of office and retail space and 3,000 parking spaces.

The project would include two large office buildings, one of which would be a football-shaped tower and a sports complex with playing fields and other activities such as indoor golf, a fitness center and swim club.

Frank stressed that Cormony would not automatically be selected to develop a slots facility if one were approved. Instead, he said, the city would solicit ideas from other companies. Some aspects of the Cormony project could still go forward, Frank said, or the city could back out of the agreement by paying the company's legal and architectural costs.

A key reason Baltimore officials are considering the area is that the city owns much of the land. It is engaged in two eminent domain proceedings for the rest.

About 100,000 square feet of building space has been seized from Second Chance Inc., a work force development nonprofit, said Mark Foster, the organization's executive director. The Maryland Chemical Co., which has been based in the area for decades, will relocate to Fairfield.

It is not clear how much money could be collected by renting the land or whether the General Assembly would be willing to give the city that level of control over the site. But Frank and others said the money could be used to offset Baltimore's property tax rate, which is higher than every other jurisdiction's in the state.

Dixon's administration convened a task force this year that aims to reduce the city's property tax rate by at least 25 percent. A document obtained yesterday shows that the commission considered slots revenue as a way to pay for that reduction, along with increases of other taxes.

"The specific location under consideration in the governor's legislation meets the very specific criteria set forth by the mayor to host a gaming facility," Dixon spokesman Anthony McCarthy said in a statement. "She still opposes slots in the Inner Harbor and at Pimlico."

Money collected from the arrangement would be in addition to other revenues detailed in the slots legislation. Assuming that the state received $1.5 billion from gambling, Baltimore would collect about $15 million in local impact money and another $15 million for a revitalization planned for Park Heights, near Pimlico Race Course.

All of this is contingent on the success of the slots proposal. The legislation faces daunting odds, particularly in the Senate, where Republicans have vowed to vote against the measure. If it were passed by the Assembly, voters would have the final say.

"I think one of the things we proved over the last four years is that when all 14 Republican senators stand together, our voice actually is heard," said Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County and Harford County Republican. "And I think on the slots issue, it's going to be heard loud and clear."

Members of the Baltimore delegation have opposed slots legislation in the past, but some are taking a wait-and-see stance. Del. Carolyn J. Krysiak, a Baltimore Democrat who represents the district that includes Gateway South, said she would support the measure if it would provide a "significant" property tax reduction.

Del. Shawn Z. Tarrant, a Baltimore Democrat, said he is surprised that the city sought to be assigned a slots location, given Dixon's opposition to putting the facility near neighborhoods. He said he would be more likely to support the proposal in Gateway South because it is farther from residential areas.

Some noted that, during Orioles and Ravens games, surrounding neighborhoods become swamped with traffic and parking headaches. They questioned the impact that a year-round slots facility might have. Others object to the proposal for broader, anti-gambling reasons.

"I'm absolutely against it," said Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the city delegation. "If you get one slots building in Maryland, whether in Allegany County or Baltimore City, the next year there will be 10 more locations.

"And then the year after that, they'll be talking about bringing in full-blown casinos."