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City plans full speed ahead for South Baltimore casino, residents learn

Plans to secure zoning and design approvals for the Caesars casino raise questions over community input and traffic congestion.

Above: Distance of South Baltimore communities from the planned Caesar’s casino (the small red “x”).

South Baltimore residents expressed concern at a meeting last night that the city was moving too fast with plans for a Caesars Horseshoe casino, but officials signaled that they want to step on the gas.

With voter approval last week of Question 7, which permits table games such as roulette and blackjack to be operated at the planned slots casino, the Rawlings-Blake administration has set up an aggressive schedule to win approvals for the $400 million facility on Russell and Warner streets south of M&T Bank Stadium.

The administration wants the facility to open in mid-2014, and is basing a small reduction of the property tax rate on gambling revenues flowing into city coffers starting in fiscal 2015.

Members of the South Baltimore Neighborhood Association were told that the City Council will hold a hearing today at 4 p.m. to make technical changes in zoning laws to permit construction of the casino and a 4,000-space parking garage.

A second measure – to close the 1500 block of Warner Street to connect the casino and garage with a pedestrian mall – will be introduced into the City Council next Monday.

Traffic Worries

The closing of Warner Street could have major impacts on the flow of South Baltimore traffic to and from Russell Street and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, several residents told Mary Pat Fannon, senior policy advisor for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

With Warner Street severed, traffic on Worcester Street cannot gain access to southbound Russell Street. This would leave only one route to the parkway (Hamburg Street) and force more truck and car traffic to detour through South Baltimore on Hanover Street, already one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares.

Mary Pat Fanon at the South Baltimore meeting. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Mary Pat Fanon at last night’s meeting. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

“How have we gotten to this point without a completed traffic study?” asked one resident, to applause.

Kimberly Clark, acting president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said a traffic study had been started in 2009, but was never completed after an earlier casino plan failed. She indicated that the old study could be dusted up and completed soon.

Amy Mutch, president of the community association, expressed frustration that the city Department of Transportation did not respond to an invitation to speak at last night’s meeting.

Fannon explained that the DOT representative who usually attends such meetings had resigned last Friday.

“We are sorry they didn’t come tonight. We’re having as little bit of a gap,” she said.

Fannon also responded to the absence of a “local development council” (LDC) to review the casino’s master plan, traffic planning and expenditure of local impact grants earmarked for South Baltimore communities.

“Shouldn’t We Get an LDC Going?”

The lack of an active LDC, as required by state law, was highlighted in a recent Brew article. The article also examined a contract signed by the city last month recommending that $6 million of the community funds pay for infrastructure improvements by the developer, including “qualified expenses” for the construction of the casino and parking garage.

State Delegate Brian McHale told last night’s meeting that he had asked the mayor’s office several months ago, “Shouldn’t we get an LDC going?”

“I would have expected the LDC set up by September,” he said, adding that he “never received an explanation” for the delay by the mayor’s office.

Responding that Mayor Rawlings-Blake plans to name the 15-member committee by the end of December, Fannon passed out applications for membership on the council. The discussion led association president Mutch to wonder whether “decisions have been made” before the group gets organized.

UPDATE: At a City Hall press conference today, Mayor Rawlings-Blake said, “I can’t give you a date [for] certain” for the appointment of the LDC.

Asked about Delegate McHale’s remarks about the slowness in naming the council, the mayor said her people had been busy advocating for the Question 7 gambling expansion up until last week’s election. She said she looks forward to working with the members of the 46th legislative district and City Council in moving the casino project forward.

Ferguson Defends Mayor’s Plan

State Senator Bill Ferguson told an audience of about 70 residents that he has been in active talks with the mayor’s office and supports her timetable for the casino and naming of the council.

Echoing a statement distributed by the mayor’s office, Ferguson criticized the Brew article for causing “misunderstandings” by not describing a larger pool of funds that will be available the community as a result of project casino revenues. He said these funds – estimated to start in 2015 and to reach $22 million a year by fiscal 2017 – will have an enormous positive impact on South Baltimore.

(The Brew article addressed only the $6 million in funds that were part of the ground lease agreement between the city and casino developer, which was approved by the Board of Estimates on October 31 and signed by the mayor.)

A preliminary rendering of the South Baltimore casino. (Courtesy of CBAC Gaming)

A preliminary rendering of the South Baltimore casino. (CBAC Gaming)

Senator Ferguson is required to sit on the LDC as the senior elected official of the district.

Other members of the council are to include two state delegates, one representative of the Caesars group, seven community residents, and four representatives of local businesses or institutions.

Last night, the general manager for the casino, Chad Barnhill, emphasized that 1,700 full- and part-time jobs are expected to be created.

The casino’s hiring plans will include a large number of city residents, he promised.

Asked if the positions will be union jobs, as in the case at casinos in Las Vegas, Barnhill replied, “We haven’t determined if they are union jobs.”

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