Pr. George’s County and MGM National Harbor at odds over proposal for local contracting


A rendering of the planned MGM National Harbor. (MGM National Harbor)

Before building permits are issued for construction of the $925 million casino resort proposed for National Harbor, Prince George’s County lawmakers say that they want legislation ensuring that residents get a fair shot at jobs and that minority and local businesses have an opportunity to bid for contracts related to the project.

But officials of MGM National Harbor say such legislation could be a “roadblock” that would jeopardize the project’s construction schedule.

MGM National Harbor and the office of County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) have been in negotiations for months on an agreement that is said to set conditions about contracting and other economic benefits to Prince George’s County. Proposed legislation would require that the agreement be finalized and approved by the county council before building permits for the project are issued.

The bill, “Video Lottery Facility Economic Opportunities,” is expected to be voted out of committee Thursday and could go before the full council next month. It has been sponsored by six of nine council members and has the support of at least two others.

Council Chairman Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro), a sponsor of the bill, said lawmakers want to make sure that there is a mechanism in place to hold the developer accountable.

See previous stories in an occasional series exploring the changing casino industry and gambling culture in Maryland.

The intent, council members said, is not to impede the project.

“We have almost 900,000 citizens that we represent, and we are here to protect and watch out for [them],” said council member Mary A. Lehman (D-Laurel) said. “We appreciate the money you are talking about. . . . But let’s be clear: We haven’t seen a penny yet.”

Baker administration officials, who have touted the casino as a major economic boost to the county, declined to comment on the legislation or the status of an agreement.

To open the gambling resort as planned in mid-2016, company officials say, MGM needs to get building permits this June. The council’s proposal to tie the agreement to permits could cause that deadline to be missed because it is unclear when the deal will be finalized, company officials said. MGM has already filed site plans with the county, and the county planning board tentatively could hear the case in May. Officials expect to break ground for the casino this summer.

“This potentially could delay the start of that facility,” Lorenzo Creighton, president and chief operating officer of MGM National Harbor, told members of the council’s Public Safety and Fiscal Management Committee last week during a heated discussion of the bill. In a letter dated last Thursday, an MGM attorney asked the council to withdraw or postpone the legislation.

In December, the Nevada-based gaming giant was awarded Maryland’s sixth and final casino license, allowing the company to pursue its plan at National Harbor. MGM proposes to build a luxurious gambling resort on 23 acres overlooking the Potomac River. The plan calls for a 300-suite glass-tower hotel, 3,600 slot machines, 140 gaming tables, a concert theater, several restaurants, a spa and high-end stores. The resort will have about 4,700 parking spaces.

Creighton said the company is committed to hiring locally, with up to 50 percent of the employees coming from Prince George’s County.

“We are building a world-class resort. It will be an iconic facility in Prince George’s, and we would love to make sure this project starts on time,” he said. “If the timeline slips, it will affect potential employees and contractors.”

Creighton said MGM has already spent about $50 million to be in the county. Of every dollar that comes through a casino machine or across a table, 50 cents will go to the state and 15 cents to payroll, he said.

MGM officials have projected an annual payroll of $160 million for the gambling resort.

James R. Estepp, a member of the board of the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable, urged the county council to trust MGM’s history, which he said was one of hiring, purchasing and contracting locally.

“I think we need to allow them some leeway on how it is they feel they can construct what will be a once-in-a-lifetime building in this county,” Estepp said.

Mark Coles, the building and legislative representative of the Washington DC Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents 25,000 construction workers in the Washington region, said that although his group supports the legislation, he hopes it will not delay the project.

“I have a number of members who have been out of work for a long period of time. The sooner they can get to work, the better off we will be,” he said. “Please do expeditiously get through your process so we can start this project.”

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Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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