A fence is going up around the 23-acre parcel overlooking the Potomac River at National Harbor. In the next few weeks, heavy construction equipment will arrive, and crews will begin removing power poles, doing test drilling and leveling the land.
It is just site preparation for now, but the work indicates how swiftly plans for a $925-million luxury gambling resort are taking shape in Prince George’s County.
In the four months since a Maryland commission granted MGM Resorts International the state’s sixth and final casino license, the application process for the casino’s construction has moved expeditiously through the county’s usually lengthy and complicated permitting process.
The Prince George’s County Council this week adopted legislation allowing gambling in the county, officially marking the arrival of the gaming industry in the jurisdiction. County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) and MGM are said to be finalizing a development agreement that secures local hiring and contracting for the project. And the Prince George’s Planning Board has set a public hearing on the casino proposal for May 8, bringing the project a step closer to construction.
“We are moving forward on multiple fronts,” said Gordon M. Absher, a spokesman for MGM Resorts International. “Our goal is for there to be no loss of time at all, and as soon as we have all the paperwork from the county, we are ready to go. There will be no lag.”
MGM is putting together a construction team, and work could begin as soon as July. The upscale gaming facility with a 300-suite glass-tower hotel, 3,600 slot machines, 140 gaming tables, a concert theater, several restaurants, a spa and high-end stores is set to open in July 2016.
“We are very cognizant of the deadline, 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,” Absher said.
The time frame leaves little room for delays, and county officials say they recognize that millions of dollars in projected revenue are at stake. MGM already has invested $50 million to bring the industry to the county. And delays also would cost the state, which is anticipating the economic benefit from the estimated $700 million or more in annual gambling revenue the casino is expected to generate by its third year of operation. Prince George’s County alone is projected to receive $40 million to $45 million of that revenue annually, officials said.
“We know that it takes time to get this done, but the longer it takes, the more money that it costs,” council member Andrea C. Harrison (D-Springdale) said at a recent meeting, citing estimates of losses of up to $2 million a day if the project is delayed. “We don’t want that to happen.”
While gaming is not new to Maryland — Maryland Live opened at Arundel Mills mall in 2012 — it is new to Prince George’s. The County Council has hired consultants to bring members up to speed on the industry and has approved legislation aimed at easing the process. The council also has tackled a controversial bill establishing hiring and contracting requirements to ensure residents and local and minority businesses get a share of the project.
The legislation, which is pending approval from the full council, was softened after criticism that it could delay the project.
Even council members who opposed bringing gaming to Prince George’s say they have made peace with it since residents voting in a 2012 state referendum supported an expansion of gambling.
“We might not have been fans of the gaming issue, but we heard the voters of this state and this county loud and clear,” said council member Mary A. Lehman (D-Laurel). “We respect the decision of the voters.”
Proof of it, they say, is the council’s fast-tracked zoning bill that went into effect the same day it passed, rather than the normal 45 days later. The legislation will help MGM meet its construction deadlines, said Council Chairman Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro).
“The council is actually moving this project forward in record speed,” Franklin said.
The county’s planning staff is finalizing its review of the application and is expected to recommend its approval — which the planning board is expected to grant at its May 8 meeting. Officials anticipate an appeal of the decision, in which case the application would move to the County Council for review. Even through that process, county officials predict, MGM will break ground on the casino this summer.
County residents who oppose the project will still have a chance to raise their concerns during the planning board’s public hearing next month. Some are concerned the county is moving too fast.
“What is the rush?” activist Jerry Mathis asked during a recent council meeting, urging the county to get MGM’s commitment on minority contracting for all aspects of the project.
“I think there are reasonable minds on both sides who can get together, work things out, hammer out a deal, so that the project stays on track,” said Zeno W. St. Cyr II, president of the Riverbend Citizens Homeowners Association and a supporter of the development. “At the end of the day, this is a project that everyone wants. It is going to happen.”