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Board of Estimates approves casino ground lease agreement

Baltimore’s Board of Estimates approved a land disposition agreement and ground lease for a new casino on the outskirts of the city near M&T Bank Stadium Wednesday that guarantees $11.2 million for the city in the first year.

The fence around the site of the proposed Harrah’s casino on Russell Street lies on the ground Wednesday, a victim of winds from superstorm Sandy.

“We are set to go,” said Theo Rodgers, CEO of A&R Development Corp., a partner in the new Harrah’s casino that is expected to break ground early next year and open in 2014. “This is the final thing we needed.”

The agreement between the city and CBAC Gaming LLC, a division of Caesars Entertainment, will allow the $375 million development to proceed after state voters approved slots parlors at five localities, including Baltimore, in a 2008 referendum.

The design of the 260,000-square-foot city casino and a companion 4,000-space parking garage at Bayard and Russell streets is awaiting approval from the city’s Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel.

Caesar’s officials told the UDARP last week that the size and scope of the casino would change if voters approve table games as part of a referendum on expanded gaming next week. In the meantime, UDARP members have asked designers to change several design elements of the development, including possible removal of huge neon billboards that will face Interstate 95 advertising the gambling establishment.

The Board of Estimates’ vote on Wednesday included a lease agreement that would pay the city a guaranteed minimum of $8 million by CBAC Gaming in the first year. That, coupled with $3.2 million in property taxes, will total $11.2 million for the city’s general fund.

It will also boost a goal of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to use gambling revenues to help reduce city property taxes, the highest in the state.

The land disposition agreement calls for an increase in lease payments to the city over the next four years: an increase to at least $10 million in the second year, $12 million in the third year, $13 million in the fourth year and $14 million in year five and thereafter.

Board of Estimates members were told that the new casino is expected to generate 1,939 “direct and indirect” construction jobs and $119 million in wages and benefits each year.

The CBAC purchased parcels of land that today are blighted and vacant. Wednesday, a team of workers was repairing the fencing around the future casino site, and several colorful signs touting the future Harrah’s gaming Mecca had been blown down by superstorm Sandy’s damaging winds.

The properties, in the 1500-1700 blocks of Warner Street, and other smaller parcels in the former industrial park, were sold to CBAC for $1.2 million per acre, according to the land agreement. Properties in the 1500 block of Russell Street, where the actual casino will be built, will be leased from the city for up to 50 years.

Funds from the casino will also be used by the city for redevelopment of the blighted Park Heights community, the board was told.

Originally, the city had expected to gain up to $18 million per year on the casino leasing terms under another operator that has since been jettisoned from the project, but Rawlings-Blake and Rodgers said the opening of the Maryland Live Casino at Arundel Mills mall this year had caused those figures to be scaled back.

“Their proposal was going forward before Maryland Live,” Rodgers said of the different projections.

The mayor said at a news conference following the Board of Estimates vote: “Our venue will stand on its own.”

Comptroller Joan Pratt was the lone dissenting vote for the CBAC land disposition agreement on the Board of Estimates. She did so based on ethical concerns, she said after the meeting.

“It’s against my morals, gambling in general,” Pratt said. “It causes social ills for the citizens of Baltimore. And I don’t believe the calculations and how they will benefit the city. They are high.”