“This guy ain’t now or ever will be in gambling. I don’t know if I have to put it in blood ... Would I sign I wouldn’t go into gaming? Yes.”
More than a decade later, Peterson’s position could not be more different. He has made a complete reversal, inking a deal with MGM Resorts for a casino at National Harbor and personally pushing legislators for a ballot referendum that could provide him with the license he needs.
The Peterson Cos. has spent $400,000 on an advertising campaign aimed at persuading voters to support the gambling expansion, and MGM has spent $8.4 million.
Peterson, 76, said circumstances have changed since he made his no-gaming pledge. It has been four years since Maryland legalized gambling, and newly built out-of-state casinos now draw thousands of Maryland visitors every year, dragging their dollars with them.
At the same time, there have been setbacks in the development plan, from turmoil in the housing market to a decision by The Walt Disney Co. to abandon plans for a 500-room destination resort. After building 423 condominiums, 91 town homes, 30 restaurants and six hotels, however, he said he has lost more than $10 million on the project to date — so much that he said a publicly held company would have walked away years ago.
The time has come, he said, to try something new.
A distaste for ‘slots barns’
Peterson, whose sons now run his company alongside him, does not take his about-face lightly. He acknowledges some risk in bringing gambling to a project that he has built piece by piece in hopes of becoming the envy of the county and the region, from the materials he uses in construction to the retailers and restaurateurs he pursues.
“People have a pride in National Harbor now, and we’re not going to do anything to take that pride away,” he said.
National Harbor marked a turning point for Prince George’s County, proof the county could complete a landmark development project. For much of the 1990s, the county had missed much of the surge in government and contractor jobs that drove economic growth elsewhere in the region.
When he first proposed the development, the state was still years from approving even slot parlors, something Peterson still considers too shabby for his project. Other than tribal casinos, there were no table games being offered in the Mid-Atlantic outside of Atlantic City.
The coming ballot initiative would allow for Las Vegas-style table games, which Peterson thinks will draw a wealthier, higher-end crowd the likes of which National Harbor’s shopping, restaurants and entertainment might attract.
“When the question was asked of me, all the gaming in the county was slots barns. We spent an extraordinary amount of time and effort to make sure that National Harbor was very special. This was Washington’s waterfront. And we did not want to do anything to denigrate that,” he said.