Above all, the $800 million venue that Jim Murren envisions atop a hill at National Harbor — with a view of the Washington Monument — would be “luxurious,” a word he used repeatedly.
The architect would be world-class, he said, going through a PowerPoint presentation. The restaurants high-end. The spa fabulous. The shopping could include the likes of Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Fendi. As for the entertainment: Saturday night fights and Madonna, just like in Vegas.
At the same time, it would be “respectful” of the region. Nothing over the top, he promised. No dancing fountains like the Bellagio, one of MGM’s best-known properties on the strip. The message was clear well before Murren got to the final slide of his presentation:
“MGM WANTS TO BE IN MARYLAND.”
Pros and cons
In his sales pitch, Murren was as upbeat and relentless as a neon billboard, but his company’s hopes rest largely on whether Maryland voters approve Question 7 on Nov. 6. The ballot measure has the potential to change not only the region’s skyline but also the calculus for where tourists stay, where business groups hold conventions and where Washington lobbyists entertain.
If approved, the measure would allow Maryland’s five previously designated slots sites to offer table games, such as black jack and roulette. But an unprecedented, $72 million battle has centered on the other thing it would do: add a new gambling venue in Prince George’s County.
MGM is angling to open a casino there in 2016 that would draw regular gamblers who live and work in Washington and its suburbs. But company officials also see the casino as an added attraction for those who travel to the region for business or family vacations from across the country and around the globe. MGM says about 70 percent of its patrons would come from outside Maryland.
But is the Washington area ready for a Vegas-style casino?
Washington is, in many ways, the anti-Vegas: a serious, buttoned-down town, where a suit and tie is often very much part of the dress code and cabdrivers read the Economist. Washington wants to be known for history, not sin. What happens in Washington doesn’t stay in Washington; it ends up on the front page — or in the Congressional Record.
The developers of National Harbor, the 300-acre mini-city where the new casino would most likely land, see it as a natural fit for their property, which is anchored by the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center and has five other hotels, more than two dozen restaurants and close to 50 stores.
But some fear that it would bring crime, gambling addiction and all manner of other social ills. And they wonder how a casino would jibe with one of National Harbor’s soon-to-come attractions: the National Children’s Museum, which is scheduled to open in December.
“That’s not what we came here for,” said Carlo Patargo, from Mexico City, walking on a recent evening with his wife, Claudia, by Honest Abe’s Souvenirs in Northwest Washington. On the couple’s first trip to Washington, a casino would be the last thing on their minds, Patargo said. “The monuments, the museums, the White House — that’s our list.”
Gambling analysts, however, say National Harbor could be the most lucrative venue in the Mid-Atlantic region, drawing heavily from the District and Northern Virginia, where casino-styling gambling remains illegal.
MGM, which has been expanding its presence outside Las Vegas, believes that the Washington market would be perfect for a casino. So far, the company has poured nearly $30 million into the effort to urge Maryland voters to approve Question 7.
MGM officials are also careful to point out that they tailor their properties to the surroundings, offering their casino in Detroit as comparable to what Washington area residents could expect.
Still, one of the mottos of the MGM Grand Detroit is decidedly Vegas: “Where exciting nights turn into decadent mornings.”
Not just gambling
Inside the art-deco-style property on the edge of downtown Detroit, hotel guests lounged in a shared “living room” with modern stone sculptures and a 20-foot-long fireplace. Across the lobby, past a jovial security guard, three seniors were seated in the same bank of video poker machines.
“You’ve got a really hot machine!” one yelled to the luckiest of her friends.
It was late morning on a Tuesday, and the rows of slot machines that dominate the gaming floor were starting to fill in. By evening, a younger demographic would arrive, many with an eye toward black jack, roulette and other table games the venue features.
With three downtown casinos, Detroit is among the biggest U.S. gambling markets, and the MGM Grand Detroit, which opened in its current location in 2007, outperforms the others. In September, it reported $50 million in gambling revenue, more than the three casinos now operating in Maryland combined.
But it’s the 400-room hotel and other amenities — including a relaxing spa that seems worlds removed from the casino itself — that sets the MGM property in Detroit apart from anything in Maryland.
And not all the regulars in Detroit come to gamble. Tanya Mann, 32, a management consultant from Philadelphia, said she stays at the MGM Grand almost weekly for business, sometimes with her husband, who is also a business partner.
“We like the stuff of casinos except for the gambling part,” she said.
Mann, a onetime Potomac resident, said she was won over by the gracious hotel staff. A guest can expect a cheerful “good afternoon” or “good evening” from everyone, from front desk personnel to the housekeeping staff. She’s also a fan of the hotel’s bathrooms, which include oversize marble showers, televisions and phones.
Rates start at about $250 on weeknights for rooms that also include plush comforters and separate sitting areas.
The casino floor is ringed by restaurants, including a 600-seat buffet, an upscale steakhouse, several lounges and a nightclub. The newest addition is a sports bar that seats 300, features 40 flat-screen TVs and offers 50 beers. Lions, Tigers, Pistons and Red Wings memorabilia dominate the decor.
Jim Andrews, a restaurant owner from Ohio, was parked there on a recent night, his attention shifting between Monday Night Football and a major league baseball playoff game. Andrews, 42, who makes the occasional visit to Las Vegas to play black jack, said he was a little surprised to see the number of people in the casino who seemed to be “barely getting by” financially.
“That kind of bothers me,” he said. “You go to Vegas, and people seem to have a little more money there.”
Crossing the river
If the Washington region fully embraces an upscale casino, it could shift the center of gravity of its entertainment, tourism and cultural scene across the river. At least until something newer or better comes along.
“You’re always looking for the next exciting new venue in Washington, so I think there will be immediate interest,” said Heather Podesta, who heads a top government-relations firm. “If they bring in a name from New York, a well-reviewed chef, people will travel for that. If you look at the Las Vegas experience, it tends to be dining, shopping, all of that.”
Not everyone who makes a living lobbying Congress sees a natural fit, however.
Any tower resembling one of Washington’s landmarks would be “the ultimate disrespect – mocking the nation’s monuments,” said Ed Rogers, head of a well-connected Republican lobbying group and a former top White House aide to President George H.W. Bush.
As a lure for business groups and trade associations surveying the country for gathering spots, the developer of National Harbor, the Peterson Cos., envisions shuttle buses running between the Gaylord convention site and the MGM casino, which would be about a mile away, apart from the property’s existing development.
Convention-goers could conduct business during the day and experience “essentially Atlantic City at night,” said Tom G. Baker, a consultant to top hotel companies at Savills, a real estate services firm. “Not many destinations have that to offer.”
And although casinos are, of course, geared to adults, Jon Peterson, senior vice president of the Peterson Cos., argued that a casino should also make National Harbor more attractive to families vacationing in the area.
“Now, the family who is potentially staying somewhere else — in Virginia or D.C. — the mom or dad is going to say, ‘Hey, let’s stay at National Harbor. They’ve have something for everyone,’ ” Peterson said.
A carousel is scheduled to open near the water in March, a few months after the debut of the children’s museum, Peterson said,
He said he wouldn’t be surprised if the existing hotels at National Harbor offered child-care services at night for parents who visited the casino.
To some degree, the success of a casino at National Harbor could depend on the cost of crossing the Potomac.
Shuttle service from the King Street Metro stop in Alexandria is already available for those who live and work at National Harbor. That could be expanded to accommodate patrons of the casino, Peterson said. There has also been talk of expanding bus service between National Harbor and selected spots in the District.
For now, though, people working in downtown Washington can expect to start their night in the hole. A recent cab ride at 9:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, took 18 minutes. The fare: $26.47, plus tip.
Jonathan O’Connell contributed to this report.