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Beltways and Liberty Bells

The politics of casino gaming

Beltways and Liberty Bells

Now that the election’s over and we don’t have to listen to anyone approve any more messages, we can look at all the referendums—or is it referenda?—involving gaming.

Actually, I’m only going to look at one, because I find it particularly amusing: Maryland, subtitled “Gaming Inside the Beltway.” After a campaign of political commercials that out-spent anything in the history of Maryland politics, the voters decided they need another casino in the state.

In exchange for the new competition from a sixth Maryland casino, current operators get legal table games and 24/7 operation. Almost all of them get a big break in the revenue tax, up until now a comically intrusive 67 percent for all but the project in western Maryland, which pays only a 50 percent tax in recognition of the fact it is in an area frequented by, I think, six tourists and three wolves per year.

I say “almost” all of them get a tax break in the referendum because one property will still fork over the full tribute to the state—Penn National’s tiny Hollywood Perryville casino near the Delaware border. The slight was just one reason Penn National officials opposed the referendum with enough money to build a small town.

The new casino will be in Prince George’s County, where Penn National’s Rosecroft Raceway is located, and under the referendum, the exact location is “open to bid.” The smart money in Maryland, though, is on a mega-casino at the National Harbor city-on-the-Potomac development, in partnership with MGM Resorts International. It’s going to be called the Back Room Deal Casino Resort, Hotel & Spa.

Not really, but that’s what Penn National executives say has happened in Maryland, making repeated comments there is a “back-room deal” among MGM, National Harbor developer Peterson Companies, and county and state officials that is making choice of the National Harbor project for the license a fait accompli (literally, “French words in italics”).

Penn National was once the main company pushing a casino in Prince George’s County. It was why the company bought the shuttered Rosecroft racetrack. A racino there would provide a defensive outpost for its nearby Charles Town racino in West Virginia, absorbing competition from the Baltimore/Washington market into the operator’s own casino.

But Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, state Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller and Prince George’s County Executive “Rushern” Baker all came out for the National Harbor project, which led to a blockbuster ballot-box smackdown between MGM and Penn National that turned Maryland airwaves into a political-ad hell that I don’t even care to imagine.

It’s much easier to imagine something completely unrelated to the election—like what’s going on in Philadelphia.

(Segue rating: 7.2.)

It looks like Steve Wynn could end up in Philadelphia yet.

(I once ended up in Philadelphia. It’s a long story.)

In 2010, Wynn tantalized the casino business in the East when he was poised to take over the stalled Foxwoods Philadelphia project on the city’s waterfront. He met with Mayor Michael Nutter, and then abruptly announced he was no longer interested. Wynn Philadelphia wasn’t happening, and the Foxwoods project subsequently collapsed.

People had a bad feeling about the Foxwoods Philadelphia project from the start. When it was first announced, the prevalent attitude of Philadelphia residents to casinos in their neighborhoods ranged from wary suspicion to the image of the bürgermeister with a mob of pitchfork-wielding townspeople.

From local neighbors threatening to lay down in front of the bulldozers to having the project bounced from the riverfront by a coalition of local and state politicians, to being rejected by neighbors of a proposed Market Street site (one that someone else is now proposing), to being bounced from the old Strawbridge & Clothier building back to the riverfront, to its lead partner running out of money—in the gaming industry bible, Foxwoods Philadelphia was Job.

Many thought Wynn would be the savior of that project, but now he’s back with a new Wynn Philadelphia proposal, one of several for the very license on which he passed with the Foxwoods project. Wynn says it would look a lot like his Encore Las Vegas property, only on the river in Fishtown, a neighborhood designation just made for the travel brochures.

Fishtown is actually where the other Philadelphia casino, SugarHouse, is located. I suppose the idea is to create sort of a Fishtown Nation of casino resorts.

Other Philly proposals include the “Provence,” a destination resort for upscale tourists (bottom line: If you didn’t know the name is pronounced “Pre-VAHNZ,” it’s probably not for you) and a sports-complex casino.

The bürgermeister is already gathering the mob.

Frank Legato is editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. He has been writing on gaming topics since 1984, when he launched and served as editor of Casino Gaming magazine. Legato, a nationally recognized expert on slot machines, has served as editor and reporter for a variety of gaming publications, including Public Gaming, IGWB, Casino Journal, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Atlantic City Insider. He has an B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in communications from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of the books, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying, and Atlantic City: In Living Color.  

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