arking a milestone in Maryland's long-running battle over legalizing slots, a state commission unanimously approved the first of five sites authorized by voters in last year's election. "By our action today, we are showing this is moving forward," said Donald C. Fry, chairman of the seven-member commission, which began weighing bids in February after a bitter legislative debate over the issue that dominated state politics for years.
William M. Rickman Jr., a Potomac developer who owns Ocean Downs, said he hopes to have the slots parlor operating at his horse racing track by Memorial Day. Several local approvals, including a building permit, remain to be obtained, but Worcester County officials have said they see no sizable hurdles ahead.
Rickman, who watched the commission proceedings in Annapolis, said he expects most of the customer base for slots at Ocean Downs to come from Ocean City, which is five miles east of the track. "We're fortunate that Ocean City has a lot of people looking for things to do," Rickman told reporters.
Decisions are expected in coming months on the three other qualified applicants who responded in February to the state's call for bids. The economic downturn was largely blamed for the anemic interest. The state is expected to rebid the fifth license at some point.
In February's bidding, applicants collectively sought fewer than half the 15,000 machines authorized by November's referendum. Fry indicated Wednesday that the next applicant likely to be considered for approval is Penn National Gaming, which has proposed putting 500 slot machines in Cecil County. The company, which is considering revising its proposal to include 1,500 machines, could be awarded a license as early as Oct. 21, Fry indicated.
The proposals for the two largest potential venues - in Anne Arundel County and Baltimore - are not likely to be acted upon as quickly.
Cordish Cos., which has proposed placing 4,750 machines at the Arundel Mills mall, is mired in a zoning fight with the Anne Arundel County Council. The council and state commission have each indicated that they would like the other to act on the proposal first.
Meanwhile, a background check of the potential operators of the Baltimore site is proceeding slowly, in part because of "a combination of multiple partners involved in the process," Fry said. Commission staff members declined to predict how much longer they will need to complete the evaluation.
The Baltimore City Entertainment group has told the commission it would like to put a casino with 3,750 machines at a site just south of the football stadium where the NFL's Ravens play. In February, the group proposed 500 machines at a slightly different site. The group has not formally submitted updated plans and must submit an additional us$ 19.5 million in licensing fees for the more expansive proposal to be considered.