Nearly 1,000 guests gambled on hundreds of slot machines at a new casino on the Eastern Shore during a trial run Wednesday, setting the stage for the state’s second gambling parlor to open to the public next week.
The Casino at Ocean Downs near Ocean City would join the Hollywood Casino Perryville in generating more slots revenue for the state, which is facing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall. After a slow start to the state’s slot machine program, which voters approved in 2008, officials say Maryland’s nascent gambling industry is progressing.
“Everyone would have loved to have seen things open up instantaneously,” said Donald C. Fry, chairman of the state slots commission. “If you think about the process involved and think about the time it takes for construction and things of that matter, having these two facilities open and a third one at Arundel Mills about to begin construction, that’s pretty significant in a two-year period.”
Maryland banned slot machine gambling in the 1960s. In a 2008 referendum, voters approved slots at five locations in the state.
The Hollywood Casino in Cecil County opened in late September. The state’s largest casino, which had been mired in legal challenges, is expected to be unveiled late next year at a temporary facility next to Arundel Mills mall in Anne Arundel County while a permanent parlor is under construction there.
Meanwhile, the state has been unable to attract acceptable bids for licenses to operate casinos in Baltimore and at Rocky Gap in Western Maryland.
The dress rehearsal at the Worcester County casino, next to the Ocean Downs harness racetrack, was required by the Maryland Lottery to ensure that the facility’s security and betting systems, internal controls for handling money and 750 slot machines were working properly.
The Maryland Lottery, the casino’s regulator, could issue a slots license Thursday for the $45 million Ocean Downs facility if the trial run is deemed successful. The slots parlor, owned by developer William M. Rickman, is scheduled to open Tuesday. Rickman also owns Delaware Park racetrack and casino.
Worcester County and other local officials as well as hundreds of the county’s American Legion members attended the invitation-only event Wednesday. The casino’s profit from the event will be split among Worcester County’s five American Legion Posts, where officials say the financial contribution is greatly needed in this tough economy.
Sarge Garlitz, commander of Post 166 in Ocean City, said the money from Wednesday’s casino trial run will “help us in a huge way” as it donates to other nonprofits and charities and provides scholarships to students.
Garlitz spent a few hours at the casino Wednesday, playing $10 in a dollar-per-pull slot machine. When he cashed out, he took home $33.
“I was very, very impressed,” he said of the new, 34,000-square-foot casino.
T.P. Simons, president of the Elks of Ocean City, secured an invitation for himself and his wife. A casual slots player who visits Harrington Raceway & Casino and Dover Downs, both in Delaware, Simons said the Ocean Downs facility was “every bit as nice, if not nicer than those places.” He said he didn’t mind that he lost some money because “it was for a worthy cause.”
Simons added that he expects the new casino to help tourism in Ocean City and surrounding areas.
“I can’t tell you how many times a day or week that people ask me for directions to Harrington or Dover,” said Simons, who manages a 100-unit condo in the resort town. “They have another option. It’ll be good for the economy and good for everybody in town.”
The Ocean Downs casino is licensed for up to 800 machines, but management will be operating 750, including electronic blackjack and roulette tables. The slots denominations range from a penny to $5. Joseph Cavilla, the casino’s general manager, said it’s important to have a mix of denominations “so that we can cater to the needs of all our guests.”
The casino has hired more than 200 employees, who live in neighboring counties, and it is looking for more, Cavilla said.
“It’s always good when we can open a facility that’s going to have an economic impact on the state,” said Stephen Martino, head of the Maryland Lottery, whose compliance and auditing staff oversaw the trial run.
The state regulator will have a staff working at the facility 24 hours a day once the casino opens.