Courtland Milloy: Pr. George’s should impose house rules in MGM deal

Courtland Milloy
Columnist July 15

Craps games tend to be played on side streets for small change. But in Prince George’s County, elected officials have been coaxed into a high-stakes crapshoot with one of the world’s most skillful gamblers — MGM Resorts International.

The casino company has thrown down on a billion-dollar bet at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, potentially raking in as much as $100 million a month with the swankiest gambling house this side of the Mississippi River. And each roll of the dice so far has turned up lucky 7’s.

The county is making it possible for MGM and National Harbor to open a 21-story, 300-suite glass tower hotel, a casino with 3,600 slot machines and 140 gambling tables, a 3,000-seat concert theater, several restaurants with celebrity chefs, high-end retail stores and a spa — all supposedly by July 2016.

“We are very cognizant of the deadline,” Gordon M. Absher, a spokesman for MGM, said in April, “and we very much would like to be able to open as close as possible to that date so that Maryland and the county can begin reaping the benefits of the revenue that we will generate.”

Now, with final approval expected to come at a meeting Monday of the County Council (acting as the District Council), the pot that Prince George’s stands to win is on the table. Maybe pot is not the right word; more like a cup.

While the casino’s revenue could rise to about $700 million by its third year, the county’s take is expected to be $40 million to $45 million a year in taxes. In addition, the casino has pledged to give the county a $1 million lump sum while the complex is being built and then $400,000 a year for “community benefits” after the house opens for business.

Such a disparate outcome is to be expected when a novice roller steps up to the felt-top tables with a crap-shooting pro.

“They are going to rack up,” Prince George’s council member Obie Patterson (D-District 8) told me recently, referring to MGM. His district, where I live, includes the 23-acre casino site, just south of where the Wilson Bridge crosses the Potomac River. “They have done their homework. They know we are hungry for nice places to go, and they know we have income to spend.”

The county is betting on a big payoff in jobs and minority contracting. MGM has said it wants county residents to make up 50 percent of the workforce on opening day. Meanwhile, 20 percent of the construction workers will be county residents, MGM says. And an impressive 30 percent of the construction contracts are supposed to go to “minority-owned businesses,” with 12 percent of those based in Prince George’s.

“We have reached a deal with MGM that ensures this facility will have a transformative impact on our residents, businesses and communities,” County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) said last month. “The goals for local hiring and contracting in this agreement are both ambitious and fair.”

But the minority set-aside game is played with loaded dice. “Minority” covers various disadvantaged groups: women, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans. And some white males claim that the very existence of minority set-asides makes them part of a disadvantaged group.

The deal calls for creation of an “oversight committee,” which will include an MGM representative, to ensure that the company meets the hiring and contracting goals. But the committee will have to rely on MGM to provide the numbers. And even if the goals aren’t met, MGM can avoid a penalty by claiming to have made its “best efforts.”

When three County Council members didn’t show up for a meeting last Monday to review the site plans — the last step in the county’s approval process before construction — the vote was postponed for a week. Maybe that will give the council enough time to learn from its mistakes, take a breath and dry those sweaty palms before returning to the table.

“I don’t think the county has been forceful enough in getting MGM to provide relief for the traffic problems that will result from this,” Patterson said.

He’s right.

When shooting craps with MGM, it’s not enough just to blow on the dice and hope that Lady Luck smiles on you. When traffic and security are on the table, you can’t afford to crap out — no matter what.

The county needs to take a page out of the casino operators’ guide: The house makes the rules. MGM has come to play in Prince George’s house.

And the house always wins.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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