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Moving Right Along, and Up, at Maryland Live!

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David Cordish was beaming when he took the podium at the press conference held at Maryland Live! on Sept. 13, the day Cordish Companies officially broke ground on the much-discussed $200 million hotel and 4,000-capacity conference center/performance venue that will rise adjacent to his casino at Arundel Mills.

Meanwhile, about 40 miles south, a large sign adorned the MGM National Harbor, near the foot of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the gateway to Virginia. It said, “The Wait Is Almost Over” — meaning the wait to open the new luxury destination.

And true, that is. While MGM has yet to say exactly when that wait will officially be over, the company has confirmed that it will be by the end of this year.

What will the new competition mean for Maryland Live! and the state’s gaming industry? While there is a general buzz among the public that the opening of the MGM will have a harmful effect on Maryland Live! and the Caesar’s Entertainment Corp.’s Horseshoe Baltimore, at the city’s main southern entrance on Russell Street, industry insiders can have a different take.

Many feel all three of the major casinos can coexist. After all, Maryland Live! not only survived the opening of the Horseshoe, it’s done steady business and seems to update the property to accommodate the market at a moment’s notice. Those observers feel that the maturing Maryland gaming industry presents a variety of opportunities and that it will begin to draw from a more expansive region.

The first dig at the Live! Hotel came on the heels of the release of the August numbers from the Maryland Lottery & Gaming Control Agency, which reported the latest in a recent string of strong months, with revenues for the state’s five casinos — which also include Hollywood Casino Perryville and Rocky Gap Casino Resort in Allegany County — reaching $100,309,528, up 3.7% from August 2015.

August also marked the ninth consecutive monthly increase, as well as the fourth month out of the last five that the state’s casino revenues topped $100 million (representatives of the Agency did not respond to requests for an interview for this article).

Its Own Island

At Maryland Live!, the official hotel groundbreaking came after moving the Arundel Mills ring road further west to accommodate construction, which will also include more lights and more parking, said General Manager Rob Norton.

Norton explained how the addition of the hotel will not so much add to Anne Arundel County’s room inventory, but serve “as a new market for the casino,” which reported $55,904,771 in revenue last month.

“Occupancy around the BWI Business District stands at around 80%, but it gets even stronger around the Mills,” he said. “But those hotels won’t be the casino hotel’s competition,” as many of the rooms will be offered as comps to the casino’s customer VIPs. “Many of our customers come from two hours-plus away, so we can start focusing on a fly-in customer base, as well.”

Even without the hotel, Norton said that he’s “very pleased” with the financial performance of the casino in the past year. “We’re still exceeding analysts’ expectations and are above the revenue numbers we [posted] prior to Horseshoe opening. It’s a testament to the fact that we, as a family-owned [casino], create a different experience here.”

So, today, Norton isn’t focused on the new competition, as much as expanding Maryland Live’s market. The opening of the Horseshoe “really hasn’t been much of a factor. We saw a brief and very minor impact during the first few months, as people were curious and trying it out,” he said.

“What gets lost in this conversation,” he said, “is that when all of the casinos are open, Maryland Live! will still be the largest in the state. MGM is an optical illusion in some ways. We’ll have more slots (at about 4,000, down from 4,750 when the casino opened), more tables and more poker, more hotel rooms and at least a similar number of restaurants. Part of our overall experience is the Arundel Mills district.”

That’s not to say that the folks in the corporate suite at Maryland Live! aren’t constantly thinking about the need to offer new attractions and compete.

“Just like when we had the new competition in Baltimore, we spent significant time laying out our strategies, and we’re holding our plans close to the vest,” Norton said. “The hotel was coming anyway, since that was part of the master plan.”

On that note, there already has been more news since the groundbreaking: That’s the purchase of a nearby property that is being branded as Live! Lofts, a 250-room, off-site hotel (the former site of the dual-hotel property that consisted of the Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Suites) on New Ridge Road that is undergoing a $3 million renovation.

More to Come

While there are no plans for a hotel at the Horseshoe, the casino “has partnerships with multiple hotels located in close proximity to the casino and, to date, has booked more than 20,000 room nights,” said Noah Hirsch, the casino’s vice president of marketing.

While that’s a convenience for its clientele, Hirsch said that from the casino’s earliest planning stages, “it was envisioned as the heart of Baltimore’s southern gateway, a project that would revitalize the community” and extend Baltimore’s tourism district south from the Inner Harbor.

“The addition of the casino has laid the groundwork for new business enterprises, such as The Game and Hammerjacks, as well as other development projects that are being considered for the immediate area,” he said, while stressing that Maryland’s casinos “were designed to be very different facilities that cater to very different markets.

“Horseshoe Baltimore was never intended to be the state’s largest or to hire the most employees,” said Hirsch of the casino, which reported $27,716,141 in revenue in August. “Rather, it is a more intimate atmosphere that appeals not only to local customers, but also tourists [and visitors who are] attending conventions, trade shows and sporting events at Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium.”

And while there will be a great deal of interest in the new hotel at Maryland Live! and the debut of the MGM National Harbor, he feels the market will settle in due time.

“History shows that customers will try the newest offering in the broader market, so we fully anticipate the state’s sixth casino will enjoy its share of visitors when it opens,’ said Hirsch. “However, as time passes, we believe the Prince George’s County facility will draw the majority of its customers from south of Baltimore.”

A New View

Apparently, the people who are running the stunning, $1.4 billion MGM National Harbor feel likewise, since it’s positioned alongside Route 95 at the state line of Maryland and Virginia — which has a lottery, but doesn’t have casinos — and points beyond.

“I think it’s a great sign that the third major casino is opening in the state in four years. It demonstrates the viability and demand for gaming in Maryland,” said Patrick Fisher, director of hotel operations for the new property.

“The MGM National Harbor is bringing an entirely new experience to [the metro Washington, D.C., area and the region]. It’s about the integrated luxury resort casino, but the casino is just part of the story,” said Fisher. “We’ll also offer great selection of food and beverage outlets, as well as 18,000 square feet of branded retail.”

The resort will also include a 3,000-seat Live Nation concert venue for various events, and about 27,000 square feet of salon and spa space.

“It will be different, with offerings unparalleled in the region,” he said, adding that what will make the 308-room hotel property stand out “will be the unparalleled views” of not only National Harbor and the Capital Wheel, but the Potomac River, Old Town Alexandria and the monuments in D.C., “from rooms with floor-to-ceiling glass.

“So, clients who are not in the area to gamble or take advantage of what else the MGM offers” will still want to stay there, he said.

Like the management at Maryland Live!, the powers that be at MGM see the opening of its new resort as almost creating a new market, instead of competing within what exists. “If you look at our property and fit us in on The Strip in Las Vegas,” said Fisher, “the new MGM National Harbor would be able to compete with any of the big casinos.”

More?

Another part of this very large puzzle concerns employment. And lots of it.

“The new hotel at Maryland Live! and its related properties means hundreds of new jobs,” said Mary Ellen Mason, director of the Hotel, Culinary Arts & Tourism Institute at Anne Arundel Community College (AACC), noting the school has “trained more than 2,500 students in three years for various opportunities within the casinos.”

AACC partnered with Maryland Live! before it opened, initially offering classes at Marley Station. Since, it’s built four state-of-the-art casino labs at its Arundel Mills campus.

“We offer face-to-face dealer training during all shifts, since these [students] may be working all times of the day or night,” Mason said. “We’re also offering the usual courses in culinary arts, bartending, hotel and restaurant management,” etc. “It’s become a thriving industry for the state with multiple career paths, and we will remain part of it.”

That’s the kind of confidence that comes when a market is maturing. “That’s evident, because the existing casinos are all catering to certain sectors of that market, as is the soon-to-be online MGM National Harbor.” said David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research with the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

Schwartz said it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that the state’s healthy gaming market could eventually lead to another casino or two popping up in Maryland.

“It’s possible that the state could pass an updated law that would allow for more gaming licenses, after a serious analysis of the market. You would need to have the regional draws to get more people as you get more casinos in that area, but it’s hard to say what may happen with Virginia and North Carolina at the moment,” Schwartz said. “Gaming laws could be passed there, eventually, but that’s up to the politicians.”

For now, he said, Maryland has made its mark in the industry as a regional player.

“When you compare it to other locales around the country,” he said, “I think it has a great deal to offer.”