State’s 2nd Slots Facility Now Open At Ocean Downs

BERLIN – Amid much fanfare, the highly anticipated Casino at Ocean Downs officially opened for business on Tuesday, completing a long and often arduous trek for the state’s second slots facility near Berlin.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and a large contingent of state and local elected officials and dignitaries officially opened the Casino at Ocean Downs on Route 589 near Ocean Pines on Tuesday with an official ribbon-cutting ceremony while a throng gathered outside for the official opening to the public. A line of several hundred people formed outside the casino prior to its official opening while a line of cars poured into the entrance along Route 589 and parked along the muddy edges of the driveway leading up to the facility.

Around 1 p.m. on Tuesday, the much anticipated casino officially opened to the public as hundreds filed into the facility. The opening started a new chapter in Maryland and county history on closed the books on a long and often controversial road to approving and implementing slots in Worcester.

“I watched it coming down, and I watched it going back up,” said Delegate Norman Conway (D-38B) on Tuesday. “This was a controversial issue, but the people of Maryland decided they wanted it and voted for it overwhelmingly.”

Once the voters of Maryland decided in a 2008 referendum to approve slot machine gambling at select locations throughout the state, the Maryland Video Lottery Location Commission began accepting proposals for the facilities. From the beginning of the debate, which goes back a decade or more, Ocean Downs in Worcester County had been considered a candidate and the referendum approved by the voters in 2008 included site-specific conditions that clearly pointed to the historic track near Berlin.

Ocean Downs owner William Rickman, Jr. and his team carefully prepared a proposal that included a renovation of the historic grandstand to include as many as 800 slot machines with the potential to increase to as many 1,500 in the future. The finished product, which came in with a price tag of around $45 million, includes 750 traditional video lottery terminals as well as high-tech digital table game simulators.

Maryland Video Lottery Location Commission Chairman Donald Fry said on Tuesday his group knew after a visit to the location in the summer of 2009 it would become one of state’s first slots venues.

“We were more concerned when we came here in the summer of 2009,” he said. “We heard support from the people in the community and we left here that day knowing we were going to approve what we thought would have been the first casino to open in Maryland.”

The Casino at Ocean Downs was the first to receive approval from the lottery location commission and a plan was set in motion to have the facility up and running by Memorial Day 2010. However, unforeseen problems with the demolition of the old grandstand, including the presence of asbestos and structural steel issues, pushed back the ambitious schedule first to this fall, and eventually the first week of the 2011.

Those issues were ultimately overcome and the new casino opened as planned on Tuesday. Casino at Ocean Downs General Manager Joe Cavilla said Rickman and the management team grew more and more excited as the new facility started to take shape.

“Through each stage, we were very excited about what we were putting together here,” said Cavilla on Tuesday. “We’re very proud of what we’re opening here today.”

For his part, Fry said the location commission carefully watched as the new facility overcame obstacles and began to take shape, pointing out the wait was worth it considering the finished product.

“About two years ago, we started to receive proposals and we were skeptical about some of the proposals we were seeing,” he said. “After looking around here today, the finished product meets and far exceeds our expectations.”

Approving slots in Maryland became a political football in the state for much of the last decade or so with several attempts made to push through legislation. Fry on Tuesday thanked O’Malley for his leadership in gaining a referendum vote on gaming in the state.

“We had to consider the state’s economic hardships, both in the short and long terms,” he said. “The challenge was to break the gridlock over gaming in Maryland. Without the hard work of the governor, today would not be a reality.”

O’Malley said bringing slot machine gambling to Maryland took partnerships and thanked local elected officials for their ultimate support after a lukewarm reception to the idea for years.

“We need to thank our partners in county government, particularly the County Commissioners of Worcester County,” he said. “They helped move this forward without a lot of the drama we’ve seen with the other locations. In return, 236 new jobs have been created, plus 300 jobs during the construction phase.”

Beyond the obvious revenue generated by the Casino at Ocean Downs and its current and future counterparts in the state, O’Malley praised the newest slots venue for the jobs it created in difficult economic times.

“The most important thing we can do right now is create jobs,” he said. “We are all in this together. Taking action to create jobs is what we’re doing here today.”