Cecil County casino offers sneak peek at slots

Technicians in hardhats peered intently into the bellies of the devices banked before them: Maryland's first batch of slot machines, ready to be turned on and tied into the state lottery's central computer network.

By midday Friday, some of the 900 newly delivered devices at the Hollywood Casino Perryville had been summoned to life, blinking seductively.

Managers gave the news media a glimpse of the state's first slot machine parlor, a preview intended to create buzz eight weeks ahead of its scheduled opening.

"The machines are here now. It's going to happen," said casino general manager Himbert Sinopoli.

All around him, workers installed video slot machines with names such as Diamond Point, Quick Strike and Vibrating Butterflies.

The whine of power tools filled a casino floor nearly as big as a football field. Soon enough, that noise will be replaced by the celebratory bells signifying that some lucky soul has hit a jackpot, intermingled with the groaning realization by others of too many dollars lost.

By Monday afternoon, the remaining 600 devices are expected to reach the casino just off Interstate 95 in Cecil County.

The press-only event gave Hollywood Casino Perryville a chance to flaunt the fact that it is the furthest along of five Maryland locations approved for slots in 2007. Long-planned facilities in Baltimore and Anne Arundel County remain entangled in legal and regulatory troubles, and the state slots commission has yet to find an acceptable bidder for an approved site in Western Maryland.

The only other slots parlor with an opening on the horizon is the one planned for Ocean Downs in Worcester County on the Eastern Shore. Its opening is planned for the end of the year, according to its website.

"In any business, it's always good to be the first out," Sinopoli said. "While there are always challenges being the first one out, it's always good to get a jump on your competitors."

Not that the Perryville casino is anywhere close to finished. It's still a dusty construction site; crews in bulldozers were grading the access road Friday, and mounds of dirt and gravel sat in the parking lot. But the tan-colored casino building, with its art deco design, appeared well along.

"We're actually in pretty good shape, but there still is a ton to get done," Sinopoli said. "Not just from the construction end, but the operations end as well — hiring, training, getting the uniforms fitted."

The casino will have a staff equal to 350 full-time positions, he said.

The $97.5 million casino, owned and operated by Penn National Gaming Inc., is scheduled to open Sept. 30. That is when the gambling public will have a chance, after many years of slots debate and planning, to wager between a penny and $5 per try on the machines.

The terminals themselves have generated controversy: In June, Comptroller Peter Franchot protested the decision by the Board of Public Works to buy the last 438 slot machines for the Cecil County casino from a single manufacturer.

All told, the state has committed $65 million to buy and maintain 1,500 slots machines for Perryville. Maryland's gambling law is one of the few in the nation requiring the state, not the casino operator, to purchase the machines. Franchot objected to the price and suggested that taxpayers were being "taken to the cleaners" — and some industry experts agreed.

Faced with that criticism, the Maryland Lottery sought advice from two analysts, who found the prices on the high end of normal. But in their reports, they excluded the costs of the maintenance contracts, which ran from $100,000 to $6.6 million over five years depending on the manufacturer.

Sinopoli said based on what he knew, "it looked like they paid a reasonable price." As for the machines themselves, he said, "being an all-new property we could go out and get the newest, best."

He pointed to one, the Advantage Revolution, which has reels that rotate horizontally in addition to spinning and which boasts a high-definition digital screen. It costs 2 cents per play with a jackpot of $1,500. Other machines have Bose sound systems "so you really get immersed in the game."

The machines, made by seven different manufacturers, come in various shapes and sizes, though only a few have handles reminiscent of one-armed bandits of yore. Delivery began Wednesday.

The casino floor will be flanked on one side by two eateries, the Epic Buffet and Extras Grill, and on another by the Rodeo Drive gift shop. At another end will be a video poker bar. The casino floor itself is a vast room covering 34,000 square feet. Once open, the casino will operate daily from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.

The Perryville casino might not have much Maryland competition to worry about for the foreseeable future, but West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware have expanded the types of gambling they allow. This summer, casinos in all three states began offering poker and other table games.

But Sinopoli believes the Hollywood Casino Perryville will be successful thanks in part to the 82,000 cars that travel daily along I-95. Some of those cars are bound for Delaware casinos, and he predicted he'll be able to divert some of that traffic even without table games.

"Being the closest to Baltimore," he said, "we feel quite confident we'll do well for us and the state and the community."

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.