ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Associated Press) — Once reluctant to embrace large-scale gambling, Maryland is now on track to potentially become a major casino state on the East Coast, after voters decided to allow Las Vegas-style table games at six casinos, including one next to the nation's capital.
At first, Maryland lawmakers were leery of full-fledged casinos. In 2007, after years of debate, they settled on allowing five casinos with only slot machines, and they made sure voters had the final say in a constitutional amendment in 2008. It took Tuesday's statewide vote four years later, however, to fully open the door to casinos with all the offerings after the most expensive political advertising campaign in Maryland's history.
"It's kind of a grand culmination of Maryland's casino venture," said James Karmel, a professor of history and a gambling analyst at Harford Community College. "It has been a long time coming."
Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker, who worked to build support for a casino near Washington, said National Harbor could rival Atlantic City, N.J., and even some places in Las Vegas. That's because the 300-acre waterfront development that opened in 2008 already has hotels, restaurants, shopping and a convention center.
"I think it will make us a premier destination place for entertainment, and that's really what this is about — not only, as I, said the table games and the slot machines but also the high-end entertainment, the shops, the restaurants," Baker said, at a news conference Wednesday. He said he expect it will attract people who come to Washington to attend conferences and tour the nation's capital.
Voters approved Question 7 with 52 percent of the vote.
Meanwhile, opponents are still hoping a lawsuit filed in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court last week could upend the results. Thomas Dernoga, an attorney representing eight plaintiffs who oppose a casino in Prince George's, contends the state's constitution requires a majority of registered voters in the state to approve the proposal, not just a majority of people who vote on the ballot question.
The relentless advertising campaign by gambling companies underscored how lucrative they view market around the District of Columbia. More than $90 million was spent, mostly by two companies. Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns a large casino in Charlestown, W.Va., near Maryland's border, charged in front early to oppose the ballot question. Las-Vegas based MGM Resorts International, which wants to build an $800 million casino and resort at National Harbor by the Potomac River in Prince George's County, caught up with big spurts of spending in the waning days of the race.
"Starting today, MGM's talented team of designers and resort experts begin work on our proposal for a great destination resort for the people of Prince George's County and the state of Maryland," Jim Murren, MGM's CEO announced early Wednesday. "We stand ready to compete with all comers for this license and the privilege to bring an MGM resort to National Harbor."
The casino planned by MGM would have up to 3,000 slot machines, as well as table games.
The Prince George's County casino can't open until 2016. Table games could arrive at Maryland's three existing casinos sometime next year and at two other casinos when they open. Caesars Entertainment was awarded a license earlier this year to open a casino in Baltimore. It has been scheduled to open in 2014. A casino in western Maryland at Rocky Gap State Park is planned to open next summer or early next fall.
Voters who supported the ballot question on Tuesday cited the importance of keeping gambling revenue in Maryland, instead of allowing it to flow to neighboring states like West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Supporters also noted job creation as a key factor in their decisions. While opponents said they voted against the expansion because they doubted a significant amount of the state's proceeds from gambling would go to education as promised, supporters said it's hard to refute the fact that the state needs the jobs and money.
"Even if there is no new school money, I'm sure they need to replenish what they took, and if that's what they need to do to get it, that's what they need to do to get it," said Amy Sheed, a Baltimore County resident who said she supported the ballot question on Tuesday.