SNOW HILL — In the wake of a successful voter referendum for Maryland’s Question 7, an initiative allowing a significant expansion in state gambling laws, the Worcester County’s Local Development Council (LDC) and Ocean Downs Casino representatives discussed Monday if, when and how the casino will expand.
While Ocean Downs General Manager Joe Cavilla was not prepared to set anything in stone, he did tell the board this morning that growth into table games is being considered and he hopes to have concrete information by March, though he didn’t make any promises.
Currently, Ocean Downs features live harness racing during part of the summer and approximately 800 video lottery machines throughout the year. With the passage of Question 7 earlier this month, the casino now has the option of adding table games as well as expanding what kind of entertainment the site can feature.
“We started meeting probably the day after the bill passed … With these new opportunities we need to look at how we’ll add them,” said Cavilla.
While video lottery machines, more commonly known as slot machines, have a reputation as being the biggest revenue earners a casino can have, Cavilla explained that having table games changes the atmosphere of a location in a positive way, which leads to more customers overall.
“You want the interaction of the other person on the other side of the table,” he said. “That’s really what makes table games fun. We’ve done focus groups and they always rank that first.”
Cavilla added that employing dealers to run the table games is “where you get the jobs from.”
However, the current Ocean Downs property is not designed for table games to be included along with slots.
“Our building was not designed for anything other than holding slot machines,” said Cavilla. “With the restrictions that were on the property initially, no entertainment, no food comping, all of those restrictions really left us with a very non-descript property, with very limited options.”
Now that Question 7 has allowed the addition of table games and other initiatives by the Maryland General Assembly have loosened restrictions on entertainment and what a casino can provide overall, Cavilla said that the property is being re-examined for the best possible ways to use the space.
One thing that Cavilla does expect to avoid is reducing the slots already on site.
“Other [casinos] are removing slots to add tables,” he said. “Maryland Live has 4,750 machines. Penn National has 1,500 machines. We think that the 800 that we have is the appropriate number. So we don’t really look to remove any machines.”
Besides table games, other changes that altered state gambling laws this year have given Ocean Downs the option of expanding entertainment on the property.
Up until only a few months ago the casino was allowed no entertainment beyond a single piano player and the occasional fireworks display. Changes to the gaming laws have eliminated those restrictions and now Ocean Downs is able to operate within the parameters of its original license with the Worcester County Board of License Commissioners (BLC). Under that license, the casino is allowed to have live entertainment up to 10 pieces inside the building seven days a week during the racing season until 2 a.m. Every player in a band, including the vocalist, is considered a “piece” in terms of live entertainment.
After the racing season, the number of days is reduced to five per week. Outside entertainment is allowed in the grandstand area between May 1 and Nov. 1 for four days per week until 11 p.m.
The previous limitation to a single piano and fireworks was put in place to protect the established entertainment business in the area, like that found in Ocean City, from losing visitors. While county Liquor License Administrator April Payne admitted that a 10-piece live entertainment license was “substantial”, she also noted that it is well under what some of the biggest clubs and attractions in Ocean City, such as Seacrets, can offer. Payne also explained that if Ocean Downs wants to permanently alter its current license, it will have to meet with the BLC in a public meeting where any concerns or questions can emerge.
“Anything that changes the actual license requires an advertised hearing,” she said.
With the recent changes to state law, Payne told Cavilla that the BLC has anticipated a discussion about entertainment at the casino.
“You can always come in before the board and ask that it be changed,” she said. “They’re aware that the Senate bill has gone through. They’re aware that you probably will want changes in your entertainment options and so forth.”
But at this point no changes have been requested, according to Cavilla.
The LDC will meet again in March. By that time, Cavilla hopes to have some more information on the direction Ocean Downs will pursue with the new flexibility it now has. He couldn’t guarantee that such a path will be decided upon by this spring, however. Instead, Cavilla only promised to keep the LDC in the loop during the process.
“When we are ready, when we reach out to those other groups, we’ll reach out to you,” he said.