March 12, 2010

The Biggest Gambler in Anne Arundel

David S. Cordish remembers when downtown Baltimore was nothing more than an industrial wasteland.

The 70-year-old real-estate developer gazes out of the sixth-floor office window of his company's headquarters in a century-old power generation station at the Inner Harbor, relishing the part he played in turning the run-down waterfront into a vibrant tourist and retail magnet.

"You see that?" he asks, pointing to a hotel and restaurants near his signature Power Plant Live! development. "It wouldn't be there if we didn't build here. A lot of this area changed after we came."

Cordish, who says he has never missed a day of work in 45 years, has spent the better part of his career bringing distressed urban areas back to life, building retail and mixed-used developments in desolate parts of Atlantic City, Louisville and Charleston, S.C.

Over the past year, the president and chairman of the Cordish Cos. has turned much of his attention to a place that is somewhat different from any other in the company's vast portfolio: Arundel Mills a hulking outlet and entertainment center off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in the Maryland suburbs.

Cordish said his plan for the shopping mall will enhance the experience there -- by adding a casino with 4,750 slot machines.

The venue, which would include a steakhouse, two bars on the gaming floor and an entertainment lounge, would be the largest slots casino in Maryland and one of the largest of its kind in the country.

"It's a separate building, but it has access from the mall," Cordish said sitting in an office filled with framed family photos, pictures of him with President Obama and Beyoncé, and sports memorabilia, including a picture of him with tennis pro Roger Federer after a match between the two. "You wouldn't walk over there if you don't want to."

A potential moneymaker

Arundel Mills emerged unexpectedly as the lead venue for slots in Maryland last year.

Under state legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2007 and a referendum approved by voters in 2008, potential operators could bid for a slots license at facilities in Anne Arundel within two miles of Route 295.

At the time, the most talked about location was Laurel Park racetrack.

But Cordish, who has a gaming division in his company that has two Hard Rock hotel and casinos in Florida, said he sought the slots license for Arundel Mills because of its location and the entertainment it already offers: the 24-screen Cinemark theater; Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament; and Dave & Buster's Grand Sports Cafe.

Cordish said he would need just 5 percent of the mall's 14 million visitors to play slots to see "phenomenal results." The state estimates that within three years of opening, Cordish's project could generate $400 million a year in revenue.

"Everybody has the same slot machines . . . so why does one casino make a big profit and another doesn't?" Cordish asks. "What makes successful gaming is the entertainment you put around it."

In the late 1960s, Cordish took the reins of the company his grandfather Louis started a century ago. His father, Paul, whom he credits with instilling in him a strong work ethic and a drive to succeed, worked at the private company from 1932 until just months before his death in 2004, at age 93.

"On his 90th birthday, we hung a banner on the outside of our office building: 'The Real Iron Man,' as a kind of takeoff on Cal Ripken," said Cordish, who played on a national champion lacrosse team at Johns Hopkins in 1959, runs 3 1/2 miles a day and plays pickup basketball games at his Baltimore County home. "Anyway, I have a ways to go."

The business began with the purchase of a few properties in Baltimore and the District and has become, under Cordish's leadership, a national, multibillion-dollar conglomerate. Cordish declined to reveal any specific information about the private firm's finances.

Cordish said he doesn't know exactly why his company, which has real estate, gaming and entertainment divisions, has flourished while others have not.

But "some of them may be smarter than we are. They may have more money because they're bigger, but we're going to work harder," he said.

Crossing the finish line

Elected officials who have worked with Cordish on public-private partnerships over the years say that Cordish, who works with his three sons, Jonathan, Blake and Reed at the company, knows the formula for a successful project.

Former Atlantic City mayor Jim Whelan said Cordish "changed the fabric of our town" by bringing a "fundamentally different vision" to the table during their discussions about revitalizing a run-down part of the city. Other developers had offered projects with skyways, allowing tourists to walk above the city streets. "Then Cordish came with his proposal, and it put people on the streets of Atlantic City," said Whelan, who now serves in the New Jersey Senate. "Some people thought it was crazy. . . . He has the energy and the drive to get things across the finish line."

Cordish said he gets satisfaction in succeeding where others have failed and thrives on building where others will not venture.

"You change an environment in a city and you feel good about it. I'm not saying you don't make a profit," he said. "But the idea of how you turn [cities] around fascinated me."

Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. met Cordish in 1978 when the developer went to work for the Carter administration in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he administered grants to distressed cities.

"He is not going to build something that is not going to perform," Riley said.

Riley called Cordish after a project by another developer in downtown Charleston floundered. He said negotiating with Cordish was tough, but they ultimately brought Charleston Place, a mixed-use development that includes a hotel, retail and conference center, to the heart of the city.

"He understands cities, which is an art form," Riley said. "He can see possibilities that others don't."


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