Upscale casino could help Prince George’s image

Robert McCartney
Columnist February 18, 2012

Critics of the new plan to build an upscale resort casino at National Harbor are wringing their hands over the risk that blackjack tables and slot machines will hurt Prince George’s County’s precious image.

What hogwash.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Here’s some stuff that hurts Prince George’s County’s image: Seeing your former, two-term county executive sentenced to seven years in federal prison for accepting bribes. Having some of the lowest-achieving schools in Maryland. A homicide rate that rose last year while the trend in the District was down.

Compare that with the stigma that supposedly will result from allowing the extension of gambling to a new corner of a state that’s already approved five slots venues in other jurisdictions and runs a daily lottery that’s been around for 39 years.

In fact, as envisioned by County Executive Rushern Baker, who announced the proposal Thursday, the project could improve the reputation of Prince George’s. Many residents would take pride in having a $1 billion casino-hotel that attracted big-name acts like those in Las Vegas.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a black eye. I think it’s going to be just the opposite,” said Edward Synan, 71, of Laurel, a retired law enforcement employee. He said new revenue for the county also could go to “help better the welfare system, the unemployment [program], the job training.”

Another backer is Vernon Matthews, 48, an Amtrak employee in Clinton. He said a casino at National Harbor would attract spending that currently goes elsewhere.

“People wouldn’t have to go all the way to Charles Town, West Virginia, or Dover [Delaware],” Matthews said. “I know people who gamble twice a month. I think the harbor would be a lot better place.”

The two residents are part of a clear majority of Prince George’s voters who support introducing gambling in the county, according to a Washington Post poll conducted last month.

The survey found that 57 percent favored allowing slot machines in the county, compared with 41 percent opposed. The respondents endorsed adding table games at current slots casinos by about the same margin.

As I’ve written before, I’m not personally a gambling fan. It can be an expensive and potentially addictive pastime. The average loss per player at a National Harbor resort casino, according to a study done for the county by Business Research and Economic Advisors consulting firm, is estimated to be $135 per visit.

But anybody with sense knows that gambling is a form of entertainment, and entertainment costs money. I’ve paid more than $135 for a decent seat at a Redskins game, where the odds of victory were considerably lower than at the roulette table.

Baker’s plan will face considerable opposition in the state legislature, and would need approval, as well, in a statewide referendum. Although it certainly requires thorough scrutiny, the proposal seems to offer important potential benefits for both the county and the region.

The first is providing a new stream of revenue for Prince George’s. Baker estimates the plan would generate nearly $50 million a year, which he pledges to use to hire more state prosecutors, fight home foreclosures and promote economic development.

It’s hard for Baker to find money elsewhere, because Prince George’s has capped its property tax rate. He’s already looking at a big deficit, which the state is threatening to enlarge by shifting teacher pension costs to localities.

“For the foreseeable future, the county has got to generate its own income, and . . . I have very few options. My biggest option is to diversify our revenue stream coming in,” Baker, who opposed gambling in the past, said in an interview on Friday.

The casino would generate between $40 million and $50 million a year, Baker said, adding, “That is a hard number to pass up as county executive when you’re facing a $126 million budget deficit.”

For the Washington area as a whole, a potential advantage is a shot of growth in the eastern part of the region, which is less affluent than the west and, thus, more in need. A National Harbor casino also would help grab a share of gambling money from outside the Washington area that currently goes elsewhere.

“It would bring a lot of non-local money into the county,” said Stephen Fuller, director of George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis. “It would be hard to make an argument against it on fiscal terms.”

At the same time, Fuller expressed concern that a casino project could distract Prince George’s from the need to develop healthier sources of economic growth. “It’s a sorry commentary that the Prince George’s economy doesn’t have better choices,” he said.

Having better choices is a good goal in the long run. Meanwhile, a fancy resort casino could be a financial plus for Prince George’s and is at least as likely to enhance the county’s prestige as diminish it.

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