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By the time Gov. Martin O’Malley visited Perryville Thursday to christen the first slots casino in Maryland, more than 21,200 people had already tried their luck there.

Hollywood Casino Perryville, near the interchange of Route 222 and I-95, has drawn thousands of visitors since it opened its doors to the public Monday, three days ahead of Thursday’s scheduled formal grand opening and ribbon cutting.

“In times of adversity in Maryland, we don’t make excuses, we make progress and that is what we are doing today,” O’Malley said at the Thursday’s ceremony inside the casino’s Epic Buffet.

Penn National officials, the gaming outfit selected to operate the casino, opted to open the $97.5 million Hollywood Casino Perryville three days early after a controlled demonstration of its 1,500 video lottery terminals on Saturday was successful.

O’Malley said the opening of Maryland’s first casino will keep the state moving forward and will “prevent dollars from flying across the border.”

“It’s going to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue,” he said.

In addition to O’Malley, Perryville Mayor Jim Eberhardt, Maryland Lottery Director Stephen Martino, Penn National President Tim Wilmott and Hollywood Casino Perryville General Manager Himbert Sinopoli also spoke at Thursday’s ceremony before participating in the ribbon cutting.

Elected officials from Harford and Cecil counties also attended.

“What a great facility,” Eberhardt said. “For any of you who may have been involved with slots, luck is a big part of it. We had a big stroke of luck when Penn National elected to go for the license in Perryville.”

Eberhardt said Penn National is a very professional organization that has been focused on its mission and objective.

“I welcome Penn National and I welcome all of you,” he said.

Martino and Wilmott spoke about how remarkable it is to have the first casino open in Maryland less than two years after state voters approved a slots referendum in November 2008.

“I am pleased to announce today [Thursday] is the opening of our [Penn National’s] 17th casino,” Wilmott said, adding that in his 25 years with Penn National he has never seen a casino go up so quickly. He extended his thanks to the entire lottery team that “moved heaven and Earth” to get the casino open.

“We are proud to be here and we are going to make you proud of us,” he said.

Casino representatives also presented two checks for $15,124 to the Boys & Girls clubs in Cecil and Harford counties and to the Community Fire Company of Perryville. The money was raised during Saturday’s controlled demonstration.

Time to play

Following the opening ceremony, O’Malley gave Perryville resident Georgia Gransky $5 to play one of the casino’s state-of-the-art video lottery terminals.

Gransky, who celebrated her 95th birthday with employees at the casino during its construction, was the ceremonial first Perryville resident to play a slot machine.

“I’m excited,” Gransky said, adding she still hadn’t settled down half an hour after she spent the $5.

Gransky said she didn’t know she would be labeled the first Perryville resident to give the machines a try and was surprised she was the center of attention at Thursday’s event.

Gransky wasn’t alone in her slots playing, as visitors from all over braved Thursday’s heavy rains to have a little fun and spend some money.

Toward the front of the casino were two friends having the time of their lives.

Nancy Few, 64, and Joyce Boatman, 62, both from North Carolina, have been friends for at least 20 years and go everywhere together.

“I’m enjoying myself, I like to play slots,” Few said.

Few said her brother, who lives in Cecil County, told her about the casino opening, so Few and Boatman, along with two other girlfriends, decided to take a seven and a half hour road trip to see Maryland’s first casino for themselves.

Boatman was ahead around 11:30 a.m.; Few wasn’t but said she was still having fun.

“I’m behind, but I am still enjoying myself,” Few said. “I think it’s nice that it came here. It’s an ideal location as far as I am concerned.”

Few suggested the casino add benches outside the entrance so people, particularly the elderly, can have a seat while waiting for the valet to bring their cars around.

Boatman said she would also like to see table games at Hollywood Casino Perryville.

“I like to play craps,” she said, explaining the group was going to Delaware Park later in the day.

In the middle of the casino was Toni Querry, of Huntingdon, Pa., which is three and a half hours away.

“I have been waiting for it to open,” she said.

Querry, 68, said she was visiting her daughter, who lives in Perryville, because she had surgery earlier this week.

While her daughter recovers, Querry decided to get away for some entertainment.

“I am holding my own,” she said. “As soon as I lose it [my money] I will go home to my daughter. I love slots, but I don’t care much for table games because I don’t understand them.”

Querry, who is originally from Maryland, said she is glad Maryland finally passed a slots law to gain revenue.

“I am hoping it helps Maryland’s revenue,” she said.

Querry planned to be back today (Friday) before she heads back to Pennsylvania and said the casino is an added bonus to visiting her family.

“It’s so much easier than having to go to Atlantic City or other places,” she said.

Hiring protest

While the focus was on fun and entertainment inside, outside in the rain about 10 people protested what they called Hollywood Casino’s discriminatory hiring policies.

Barbara Contino, who was wearing a pink construction helmet with a diamond-shaped sign that read “Women Working,” was part of a handful of people, some who said they were business owners, who stood with picket signs by the casino’s entrance off Route 222.

Contino said Penn National failed to meet a state mandate of hiring 25 percent minority- and women-owned businesses for its gambling operations, a claim the governor disputed in his speech at the casino.

O’Malley said the casino’s minority employment was at 23 percent, which he said was “good.”

O’Malley said the casino hired 350 full-time positions and 190 jobs indirectly.

Contino, who lives in Baltimore and owns Maryland Toll Call Company, which provides ATM machines, said she went to school to be a slots technician and wouldn’t have minded working at Hollywood Casino.

“We should really hold their feet to the fire because it’s a requirement in the state of Maryland,” she said. “Out of that 25 percent [hired], there was supposed to be women and minorities, and as far as I know, they used one woman business[owner].”

She said she tried to complain about the casino hiring for at least six months but has received no response from the governor’s office or his office on minority affairs.

Arnold Jolivet, managing director of the Maryland Minority Contractors Association, said Penn National failed to seek out qualified minority or female investors for its slots operations and has not conducted any real outreach to minority or women business owners.

“It’s almost like they forgot about that. We want to send a message to Penn National,” he said. “We’re not going to take it anymore.”

Pless Jones Sr., a consultant for Penn National, acknowledged Thursday the company did not meet the 25-percent threshold at the casino but justified its hiring of about 23-percent minority staff.

Jones said Penn National could have hired 35 or 40 percent minority and women-owned businesses, but that would have meant giving contracts to “front,” or false, businesses.

He also said the company did not have time to hire more local businesses because design and architectural work was already done by the time Penn National got its license, which contained the 25-percent mandate.

“We didn’t have a chance to get in any participation,” he said, adding, “We had to buy from overseas.”

Jones called the protesters’ accusations “just bogus,” pointing out that Penn National did recognize minorities and even a 23-percent minority hiring rate is unheard of in Cecil County. According to 2009 census estimates, African Americans and Hispanics account for 6.1 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively, of Cecil’s population of 100,769.

“Penn National did a great job to reach out to the community and minority businesses,” Jones said. “It was a great outreach effort, and one thing I wouldn’t have, and Penn National wouldn’t have, is front [businesses].”

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