Soft Opening At Casino A Hit

BERLIN – The new Casino at Ocean Downs got a shakedown cruise this week with state lottery officials, hundreds of local American Legion members and other invitees pulling slot machine handles and testing out the facility in advance of its public opening set for next Tuesday.

The Casino at Ocean Downs hosted a soft opening of sorts on Wednesday with Maryland Video Lottery Facility Location Committee members on hand to conduct a controlled demonstration of the facility’s roughly 700 slot machines, its customer service and its procedures and protocols. Following the demonstration, the committee was scheduled to approve the license for the second slots facility to open in Maryland.

Also on hand were hundreds of local American Legion members, who were invited by casino owner William Rickman, Jr., to be among the first to test the new video lottery terminals and everything else the facility has to offer. American Legion Synepuxent Post 166 Commander Sarge Garlitz was among the first to test the new slot machines and the casino’s wares and came away with a strong first impression.

“It went very well,” he said yesterday. “If fact, it was off the charts. The building inside gives a very beautiful presentation. I got to meet Mr. Rickman for the first time. He was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.”

As part of an unannounced benefit of Wednesday’s soft opening at Ocean Downs, a portion of the proceeds from the first day will be donated to the county’s five American Legion posts along with a contribution from the casino owner.

“The donation from Mr. Rickman from yesterday’s [Wednesday’s] event will benefit all of the Legions of Worcester County,” said Garlitz. “To go one step further, I received a phone call last night and Mr. Rickman will match the donation from yesterday’s trial run. Yesterday at the casino, all posts of the county were represented and they are all impressed with this casino and the support that is given toward the American Legion.”

In addition to the hundreds of American Legion members, a handful of local residents and business owners were also invited to Wednesday’s demonstration and soft opening. For example, Skip McGarry and his wife Tracey, who own and operate the Steer Inn nearby, participated in Wednesday’s festivities.

“We were invited by the lottery officials and also the casino,” said McGarry. “We have always had a good relationship with the track and while it was being built, we had met a bunch of the construction crew at the Steer Inn. I think the casino is going to be a big boost to the local economy.”

Casino at Ocean Downs officials announced earlier this month plans are in place for a Jan. 4 grand opening, complete with a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring Governor Martin O’Malley and other state and local dignitaries. After the formal ribbon-cutting ceremony and tour, the new casino at the track near Berlin is set to open to public around 1 p.m. on Tuesday.

From nearly the beginning of the process, renovating the old grand stand at Ocean Downs proved challenging for casino officials. Ocean Downs was awarded the very first slots license in Maryland in September 2009 and track officials immediately embarked on an ambitious plan to open the new casino by last Memorial Day.

However, during the initial demolition phase, the presence of asbestos and problems with the structural steel of the decades-old grandstand presented early setbacks for the new slots facility near Berlin, which will house 700 video lottery terminals when it opens early next month. Once the initial structural projects were overcome, the renovation of the old grandstand to a state-of-the-art casino accelerated through the summer months.

In addition, improvements to Route 589 at the approaches for the new facility, including improved ingress and egress locations and a new traffic signal are also nearing completion. Earlier this fall, casino officials announced a December 16 target date, but with the unforeseen issues discovered early and a handful of other minor setbacks, the facility is now slated for a long-awaited opening for the public next Tuesday, January 4.

The casino will feature over 700 video lottery terminals initially, housed in roughly 34,000 square feet of gaming space and new food and beverage offerings. From the beginning, providing exceptional customer service has been a top priority for the Casino at Ocean Downs, according to General Manager Joe Cavilla, and over 200 new employees, most of whom live in the areas around the facility, have been hired and trained in anticipation of opening day.

Meanwhile, early figures for the state’s slots facility in Cecil County suggest Ocean Downs can likely expect a honeymoon of sorts followed by a leveling off. The facility in Cecil County did over $2 million in its first four days in September, or roughly $346 per machine per day. In October, the first full month, the Hollywood Casino in Perryville brought in $11.4 million, or about $245 per machine per day. In November, the slots facility in Cecil brought in $7.6 million, or roughly $169 per machine per day, according to the latest figures released last week.