SNOW HILL — Fears of an expanded presence at the Casino at Ocean Downs, including new developments on the site and a relaxation of the restrictions of food and drink giveaways, were allayed somewhat this week after red flags were raised earlier this winter.
Worcester County’s Local Development Council (LDC), which oversees issues related to the Casino at Ocean Downs, met with casino officials, including owner William Rickman, Jr., this week to discuss language in a bill nearly passed by the General Assembly that would lift many of the restrictions on giveaways and new construction at the facility. The bill, which nearly came out of the House on the session’s last day, would have approved a referendum for an expansion to table games at Maryland’s existing and future casinos, as well as a sixth facility in Prince George’s County.
However, somewhat hidden in the bill was language that would have relaxed many of the restrictions put in place on the Berlin facility when slots were approved four years ago. Fearing competition with area businesses, local officials successfully added language to the original bill preventing a hotel, convention center and other amenities, along with free food and drink giveaways. However, the table games bill fiercely debated in the 2012 session would have relaxed some of those restrictions, causing heartburn for elected officials and business leaders in nearby Ocean City.
Rickman told the LDC Monday he and his staff were taken aback by the language in the bill governing restrictions at Ocean Downs as much as local officials were.
“This wasn’t our bill,” he said. “In terms of a hotel or a convention center or amusement park, we don’t want any of those things. We’re trying to find a way to make this more attractive without taking away from the local business community.”
LDC Chairman and Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan said the resort community was concerned with the language in the proposed legislation that would have relaxed some of the restrictions and allowed for more amenities on the site including a hotel and convention center.
“There were concerns about the restrictions in place to protect private business,” he said. “The bill that would lift all of those restrictions to a large degree came up rather quickly. That’s why the red flag went up.”
However, Rickman said the Casino at Ocean Downs never really challenged many of the restrictions in place and encouraged LDC members to allay their fears.
“We’re trying to be proactive with you on this,” he said. “The reality is, there are certain restrictions we don’t disagree with. For example, we have no intention of building a hotel or a convention center and we don’t want to give away alcohol because we’re losing money. The actual play at the casino is about 50 percent less than what we projected.”
Rickman said for the most part, the casino had no intention of taking advantage of the relaxed restrictions, even if the bill had passed.
“I don’t think there is anything you need to worry about. We’re trying to be a good neighbor,” he said. “We all agree we want this to be a success. If we do well, then you do well and the state does well. We don’t want to be perceived as anything anybody has to worry about.”
Rickman said the casino would like an easing of the restrictions on an amusement park at Ocean Downs if only to accommodate an occasional pony ride or moon bounce at family friendly events at the track. He also said the casino would like to build better dining facilities, although there is no desire to have food giveaways or free buffets for patrons.
“We’re admittedly weak on food and beverage,” he said. “We don’t want to have free liquor because it’s not good for business. The misconception is we’re making so much money we can give away free food. We’re not in a position to give away free anything.”
Casino at Ocean Downs General Manager Joe Cavilla agreed the facility’s food service operation was lacking and told LDC members about some recent events it had to shop out.
“We’ve had two premium player events, but we had to have them offsite at the Captain’s Table and Ruth’s Chris because the bill doesn’t allow it,” said Cavilla. “We’d like to have a restaurant of that caliber to do those events. We’re not looking for a free buffet for the masses.”
Rickman said if a sixth casino was approved in Prince George’s County, it would likely get a portion of Ocean Downs’ allocation. The Casino at Ocean Downs is currently utilizing 800 of its 2,500 machines allocated and Rickman said as many as 1,500 of those could be shifted to the Prince George’s County facility.
“Nobody has to fear we’re going to get much bigger than we are,” he said. “With our location and the competition nearby, we want to have a little, boutique casino and I think that’s what we’ve already achieved.”
Meehan said the casino should continue down a recent path of working with the neighboring business community in terms of package deals and other partnerships.
“We always felt we have the infrastructure in place to support the casino,” said Meehan. “We have the hotels and the restaurants. Where once there was a disagreement if there should even be a casino, now we all have to work together to make it work. It is what it is.”
To that end, Rickman said all involved could get behind the proposed table games legislation if the language regarding some of the restrictions were taken out of the bill.
“I think we’re all in agreement if there was some different verbiage in the bill, we could reach some common ground,” he said. “We support the amendments as long as the restrictions in place don’t become more restrictive. Let’s face it, if this bill went to referendum, nobody would vote up or down because of what’s happening at Ocean Downs.”
Senator Jim Mathias said he was in favor of an expansion to table games at casinos in Maryland under certain conditions, but that he too was taken about by the language relaxing the restrictions at Ocean Downs.
“I said I would co-sponsor a table games bill, but I didn’t anticipate the Frankenstein bill,” he said. “When I saw some of what was in there, I had to walk away.”
Delegate Mike McDermott said he battled for the amendments keeping some of the restrictions at Ocean Downs in place and others that kept some of them in right up to the end of the session on Sine Die.
“I had an Alamo position in place as the clock was ticking down that would have taken out some of those bracketed sections about lifting restrictions,” he said. “I’m not convinced about changing something that has only been in place for 12 months. The compromise would have allowed some of that offseason stuff.”
Cavilla said some of the restrictions could, and probably should, be eased somewhat, particularly in the offseason. He said he envisioned giving bus groups a $10 voucher for food at the facility, for example.
“The thinking was, the casino could stand alone when the reality is, we’re subject to the same offseason fluctuations that other businesses in the area are,” he said.
Rickman said he would work with the LDC and the area’s business community to find a position amenable to everybody if the bill is re-introduced in a pending special session, or is reincarnated next year. He was scheduled to meet with Ocean City Chamber of Commerce officials that very day to work on some agreements in the language.
“The best thing we have here is an open dialogue and I’m hoping we can find some middle ground,” he said. “It’s unfortunate we didn’t talk about this in February because some of this confusion could be been eliminated. Anything we can do to help the community will help us. That’s the spirit of cooperation we’re hoping to foster here.”