State Study Supports Expansion To Table Games

OCEAN CITY — One day after an independent report revealed Maryland could support a sixth casino in Prince George’s County and that a move to table games at all of the state’s facilities including the Casino at Ocean Downs would drive up revenue, Ocean City business leaders and elected officials began to discuss the eventuality.

The resort’s Economic Development Committee (EDC) met on Wednesday to discuss a variety of topics including the pending special session on gaming in Maryland.

Gov. Martin O’Malley last month convened a special work group to study an expansion to table games at Maryland’s five authorized casinos along with the addition of a sixth casino at Washington Harbor in Prince George’s County.

The governor’s work group is expected to present its findings during another General Assembly special session early next month specifically focused on gaming issues. Expanding to table games in Maryland and adding a sixth casino in Prince George’s County would need to be approved by the state’s voters by referendum and state lawmakers will consider legislation to get the issues on the November ballot.

To that end, the state commissioned an independent study conducted by the Department of Legislative Services along with an independent consulting firm, the results of which were released on Tuesday. Boiled down to its simplest terms, the study confirmed the gaming market is not saturated and Maryland could support a sixth casino at National Harbor. The study also confirmed even with the added competition, the five other facilities in the state, including Ocean Downs, could make more money by adding table games.

The study examined the potential number of table games such as poker, blackjack, craps and roulette, for example, for each of the state’s authorized casinos. For Ocean Downs, the study suggested the addition of 24 table games, which would produce an estimated $12 million in new gross revenue. The study suggests table games would increase net revenue at Ocean Downs by around 59 percent. Table games would also increase the local impact grants, money shared by the county and surrounding communities, by $11 million.

While the numbers sound impressive, the local business community remains vigilant about what changes could be in store for the Casino at Ocean Downs. Restrictions were put in place when the legislation was first passed a few years ago on the types of lodging, food and beverage programs offered at the Berlin casino in deference to neighboring Ocean City and those haven’t changed although legislation considered during the regular General Assembly session this year would have relaxed some of them.

With an expansion to table games and the addition of a sixth casino on the table next month, some of those restrictions on Ocean Downs will likely be revisited.

“There were a lot of restrictions put in place on Ocean Downs for a reason,” said EDC President Michael James. “We have to keep a close eye on what happens with this special session.”

Delegate Mike McDermott (R-38B) agreed the resort business community should keep a close eye on the special session on gaming, even during its busiest time of the year.

“We have to be ready for this upcoming special session on gaming,” he said. “[Senate President] Mike Miller is determined to have a sixth casino at Washington Harbor and for that to happen, he needs it on the November ballot, which is why we need to be prepared and vigilant.”

McDermott said the legislation that failed at the end of the regular session would have relaxed the rules for Ocean Downs and he fought for amendments to avoid that. The effort was moot after the legislation failed to pass at the close of the session, but the delegate warned they would likely be back on the table.

“We have to be diligent and vigilant in Annapolis,” he said “We have to move forward together. I’m working with other Eastern Shore delegates in trying to craft our own bill to protect the interests of Ocean City.”

For their part, Ocean Downs officials have lobbied for some loosening of the restrictions in order to allow the facility to deal with the same seasonal fluctuations most other businesses in the resort are faced with each offseason. Ocean Downs officials have said they don’t want a convention center or a vast entertainment complex with hotels and restaurants, but they would like the ability to adjust and adapt to seasonal peaks and valleys.

“They wanted to change the parameters for Ocean Downs,” he said. “Mr. Rickman and the casino do want some small changes, but I don’t think they are anything anybody in this room would disagree with.”

Casino at Ocean Downs General Manager Joe Cavilla was on hand at Wednesday’s EDC meeting and told business leaders the facility is not seeking major changes and wants to be a good neighbor and partner with the resort.

“We’re committed to the business community in Ocean City and Worcester County,” he said. “We’re not a destination on our own. We’re just a part of this larger destination.”

James agreed the casino and the resort business community can and should be partners, but warned of what might be hidden in legislation considered during the upcoming special session.

“Like it or not, table games are coming,” he said. “That was inevitable from the start. We certainly wouldn’t want to see hotels or big parks, but we want you to be successful.”

To illustrate the growing partnership, Cavilla said Ocean Downs officials have been tracking the number of visitors from out of state and out of the area and found that a big contributor was Virginia. He said Virginia accounted for about 14-16 percent of the visitors during the offseason, and even if the two counties on Virginia’s Eastern Shore are discounted, the figure still came in around 10 percent.

“That’s encouraging for us and it should be for you also,” he said. “If they’re coming, we obviously can’t put them up, so we hope they are staying in Ocean City. We hope you feel we’re part of the team.”