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Jockey Club makes late case for slots at Laurel

Slots

The Maryland Jockey Club made a late-hour plea Thursday to derail zoning legislation needed for a planned slots casino at Arundel Mills mall, saying the machines instead belong at Laurel Park racetrack, which the club operates.

The Anne Arundel County Council is scheduled to vote Monday on a bill that would allow Cordish Cos. to proceed with a 4,750-machine casino at the mall. Cordish has already secured a slots license from the state.

Jockey Club.jpgAt a well-attended news conference, Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas urged the council to reject the zoning bill and "allow us back in the mix," arguing that slots could be installed at the track much sooner than the mall site due to several permitting issues.

"If zoning is approved at the Mills, Laurel cannot and will not survive," Chuckas said. "When I tell you Laurel will close, I'm not over-exaggerating."

Joe Weinberg, a principal with Cordish, dismissed the relevance of the news conference, saying: "It shows they are desperate and are willing to misstate the facts."

Laurel is scheduled to be auctioned off next month as part of bankruptcy proceedings. Six suitors, including Cordish, have expressed interest.

Under Maryland's slots legislation, a portion of proceeds are earmarked for enhancing horse-racing purses and breeding operations, regardles of where the machines are located. Matching funds are also included for track owners to upgrade their facilities.

But Chuckas said that to survive, Laurel needs the one-third of slots proceeds that operators are allowed to keep. About half of slots proceeds benefit state education programs.

A bid by the track's current owners for a slots license was disqualified in February because it did not include a required $28.5 million licensing fee. That left the mall site as the only qualified proposal for the Anne Arundel slots license, one of five authorized in Maryland.

Cordish has said it plans to open its casino, which would be among the largest of its kind in the country, by late 2011. But a lawyer representing Laurel said Thursday that the timeframe "redefines the definition of impossible."

Harry Blumenthal, Laurel's land-use counsel, said it could take close to four years for Cordish to receive a variety of permits needed for construction -- a claim Weinberg said was "ridiculous."

Blumenthal said that Laurel, which had long been considered a leading site for slots, has already secured many of the permits it would need.

But both Weinberg and a senior aide to Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold (R-Anne Arundel) said the track's new owners would face several additional planning and permitting hurdles that Cordish does not.

"If it's not us, it's going to add years," Weinberg said.

The owners of Laurel also announced Thursday that they had formally appealed the state's decision to award a license to Cordish.

If the zoning bill fails before the county council, the state slots commission that awarded the license to Cordish could re-open bidding, allowing the track's new owners back in the game.

Weinberg said the fact that there were six bidders suggests Laurel can remain financially viable without slots. His company has said it wants to put slots at the mall regardless of whether it buys the track.

By John Wagner  |  December 17, 2009; 1:39 PM ET
Categories:  John Wagner , Slots  
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