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Panel approves Baltimore casino license

ANNAPOLIS — A state commission on Tuesday approved a slot machine license for Caesars Entertainment to build a casino in Baltimore, and the panel signed off on a scaled-back proposal for a casino in Western Maryland where developers could not find financing for their initial plan.

Caesars Entertainment will build its 3,750-machine, two-level casino on this vacant lot on Russell Street.

The unanimous vote for the Baltimore casino grants the fifth and final casino license allowed under state law. It came more than 3½ years after voters approved a constitutional amendment to allow slot machines in Maryland in a process that was slowed by a recession.

The Video Lottery Facility Location Commission’s vote came a little more than a week before lawmakers are scheduled to come to Annapolis for a special session to decide whether to expand gambling to allow table games like blackjack and poker at the state’s casinos, as well as a new site in Prince George’s County near the nation’s capital.

In Baltimore, Caesars can have 3,750 slot machines at a two-level casino on Russell Street near Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium. The casino will be called Harrah’s Baltimore.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake described the commission’s decision as an important and positive step forward for the city. The mayor also supports future gambling expansion, which voters would have to approve in November.

“Legislation under consideration for the special session will help make Baltimore’s facility even more competitive, add hundreds of additional jobs, increase education funding, and help reduce property taxes,” the mayor said in a statement.

The Baltimore casino, which would be the state’s second-largest of the five allowed, would involve a $226 million investment to build a facility with about 262,000 square feet and adjacent parking garage. It is scheduled to open in the second quarter of 2014.

The revised plan at Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort was approved after Evitts Resort LLC told the panel it could not get the financing needed for a planned $65 million addition to the lodge to house 850 slot machines. Instead, Evitts will put 500 machines in meeting space inside the current facility. Evitts will create additional meeting space within three years.

“Well, financial markets are tough,” Tim Cope, president of Evitts Resort, told reporters after requesting the smaller casino. “We read the paper every day right? It’s not only local, it’s international, and certainly as a startup casino in a somewhat rural area, there was a question about if there’s really enough people in that area to support the bigger project.”

Cope expressed confidence that there was enough support, and he told the commission that the company is prepared to write a check to settle on Friday. Cope said the revised plan would cost between $25 million and $30 million and it could open in the second quarter of next year.

Cope also said the casino could ramp up to 850 machines or more if business dictates further expansion.

The company still plans to keep all of the employees who now work at the lodge, Cope said. About 100 jobs would be added when the slot machines arrive, about half the new jobs previously planned.