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4 local investors seek to join Caesars group

Four local equity partners want to join the investment group bidding for the license to build and operate a Harrah’s casino in downtown Baltimore, a spokesman for the group said.

The investment group, led by Caesars Entertainment Corp., is the only suitor being considered for the project. The state Video Lottery Terminal Location Commission has yet to decide whether to award a slots license to the group, which already includes former Rouse Co. CEO Anthony Deering and Theo Rodgers, president of A&R Development Corp.

Jan Jones, a Caesars senior vice president, said that additional investors had expressed interest, but would not be named until paperwork was submitted to the slots commission. Stephen L. Martino, director of the Maryland State Lottery Agency, said last week additions to the group were likely.

The group has proposed building a 3,700 slot machine facility, dubbed Harrah’s Baltimore, on Russell Street. Adding additional investors to the group would not delay a decision by the slots commission on a license award for the Baltimore casino, but they would be subject to a background check conducted by the lottery agency.

Meanwhile, the final barrier to the slots commission making an award for a proposed facility at Rocky Gap State Park could be removed on April 12.

Allegany County Commissioner William R. Valentine said the commissioners would come to an agreement with Evitts Resort LLC, the casino bidder, during a public meeting next Thursday.

The deal would set up a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, between the county and developer. The county cannot collect property tax on the resort property because it is state owned, but would get payment equivalent to those taxes from the casino under the agreement.

With background checks into Evitts and its parent company complete and a lease agreement for the Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort near finished, the biggest obstacle remaining was the PILOT agreement. Donald C. Fry, chairman of the slots commission, urged an Evitts representative last week to move the process along quickly.

“That is the type of urgency that we are hoping to see,” Fry said. “I think we will be in a position to make a decision in April with that as the scheduled decision date.”

Once slots licenses for Baltimore and Allegany County are granted, all five available licenses will be awarded — though another could be created.

Legislation is looming in Annapolis that would allow for the development of a sixth casino — this one in Prince George’s County, perhaps at National Harbor or Rosecroft Raceway. SB 892 easily passed in the Senate last week and now faces consideration in the House of Delegates. In addition to adding a sixth license, the bill would legalize table games — like blackjack — and lower the rate at which slots are taxed by the state.

Even though a Prince George’s County casino could take a bite out of the customer base in Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Caesars officials support the legislation.

“We believe that the sweeteners that accompany the legislation … allow us to be far more competitive” said Jones, the Caesars vice president. “We do believe that table games are important if you want to compete with other states.”

Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, the city’s tourism organization, said the addition of table games would make up for any loss in revenue caused by a sixth casino.

Noonan added that a Prince George’s facility would be “[Washington] D.C.’s casino,” with plenty of market left for Baltimore.

“I think tourists will like having another full attraction,” he said.

The Ways and Means Committee will consider the legislation Tuesday, and the full House would have to act swiftly to pass the bill. The General Assembly ends at midnight on April 9.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O’Malley, said the governor did not ask for table games to be added to the state’s gambling repertoire this year, but stopped short of saying O’Malley disapproved of the measure. The bill’s movement has been “very carefully monitored” by administration staff, she said.

Prince George’s voters’ desire for a casino is most important to the governor, Guillory said. Even if passed by the General Assembly and signed by O’Malley, all aspects of the legislation would be subject to a voter referendum this fall. A majority of voters statewide would have to approve the gambling expansion, and Prince George’s voters would have to approve the addition of a facility in their county.