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Rocky Gap casino moving forward

A proposed casino at the troubled Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort in Western Maryland could open late next month, slightly ahead of schedule.

The Maryland State Lottery and Gaming Control Commission is expected to approve an operations license for the facility — the state’s fourth casino — at its monthly meeting on Friday, according to Lottery officials.

A control demonstration of slot machines and table games, such as blackjack and poker, is scheduled for May 20, a Lottery spokeswoman said.

Evitts Resort LLC, the casino operator and resort owner, had previously said it planned to start gambling operations in June. If the control demonstration is successful, the casino would open on May 22 with 558 slot machines, 10 table games and 250 new employees.

The casino opening could start a new chapter for the previously state-owned and chronically debt-ridden Allegany County vacation and conference destination, which Comptroller Peter Franchot once called “one of the biggest white elephants ever imposed” on state taxpayers.

The 280-acre resort in Rocky Gap State Park near Cumberland — with 215 hotel rooms and an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course — never made enough money to pay off its debt, causing the state to seek a casino operator to take the resort off its hands.

Evitts agreed to take over the resort last year, but did not inherit its debt. Instead, the state Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Business and Economic Development, Allegany County and the Maryland Economic Development Corp. wrote off more than $60 million. Private investors, owed more than $34 million, lost $26.6 million of that investment in the deal, which was approved by the Board of Public Works last summer.

The Video Lottery Facility Location Commission approved Evitts’ application last spring, almost four years after voters approved the creation of five casino licenses in Maryland, including one earmarked for Rocky Gap.

Initially, there was little interest among developers because state law called for a casino operator to pay a 67 percent tax on all slots revenue. Desperate to attract suitors, the legislature in 2011 agreed to lower the future facility’s slots tax to 50 percent for the first 10 years of operation.

After a series of failed applications, Evitts — a subsidiary of Minnetonka, Minn.-based Lakes Entertainment Inc. — emerged as the sole candidate for a slots license, which was finally approved last spring.

Though Evitts is poised to open its small gambling floor ahead of schedule, development has not gone as planned. The developer had originally told the state it would renovate the resort and operate 850 slot machines.

But Evitts could not secure a loan to pay for the renovations so instead decided retrofit conference space and substantially cut down on the number of slot machines, making it the smallest state casino by that measure.