12/22/2009 12:00AM

Laurel vows to fight casino approval


The racing industry in Maryland vowed on Monday night to push back against the approval of a zoning measure that would allow the construction of a casino in Arundel Mills Mall near Laurel Park.

The approval by the Anne Arundel County Council caps a 10-month effort by the Cordish Cos. to get local go-aheads for the casino, which could be the largest in Maryland, housing 4,750 slot machines. The council voted 4 to 2 to issue a zoning permit for the casino on Monday night, over objections from local anti-gambling groups and Laurel's owners, who want a casino of their own.

The Cordish Cos. applied for the right to build the casino after Maryland voters approved a referendum last year allowing five casinos in the state, including one in Anne Arundel County, where Laurel Park is located. Laurel Park, through its parent company Magna Entertainment, also applied to operate a casino in the county, but its application was thrown out because Magna did not include a $28.5 million fee associated with the application.

After the vote, Laurel's general manager, Tom Chuckas, said in a statement that Laurel planned to join with anti-gambling groups in sponsoring a petition to overthrow the county vote. Laurel and its sister track, Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, are operated by a Magna subsidiary called the Maryland Jockey Club.

"The Maryland Jockey Club will fully support the counter initiative sponsored by the group Stop Slots at Arundel Mills Mall to bring this issue back to the voters of Anne Arundel County, who deserve the right to determine if a mall is what they wanted for gaming," Chuckas said. "We are going to continue to pursue all of our legal options and exhaust all means and measures to continue this fight."

The approval still needs the signature of county executive John Leopold, who has said that he supports the zoning change. Slot opponents said that after he signs the bill, they will begin the effort to collect 19,000 signatures to put a measure on the ballot that would allow voters to overturn the council's decision.

The council also approved a zoning change that would allow a casino at a location near Laurel Park, but Leopold has said that he will veto that change because the law only allows for one casino in Anne Arundel County.

The referendum approved by voters will give the racing industry up to $100 million in subsidies from casino operations in the state, regardless of whether any casino is physically located at a racetrack. Those subsidies are earmarked for purses and capital expenditures at racetracks.

Laurel's push to get the zoning approval overturned is wrapped up in Magna's attempts to sell both Laurel and Pimlico. Magna filed for bankruptcy in March with hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, and the company recently took six bids for the Maryland tracks. An auction is scheduled for early January.

An official involved in Magna's bankruptcy reorganization said on Tuesday that the recent developments surrounding Maryland slot machines would not have an impact on the auction schedule. The legal disputes that are expected to accompany the zoning approvals, as well as separate legal challenges, will likely drag on for a year or more, the official said, and Magna cannot seek to delay the auction that long because of its need to sell assets soon to pay down its debt.

One of the bidders for the tracks was the Cordish Cos. Another was the family of Joe De Francis, a former owner of the tracks, who also has equity in a company that would share in the profits from slot machines at the tracks for 20 years.