Hotel Firm Threatens To Cancel Expansion

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 15, 2006

Gaylord Entertainment, the company building the massive hotel that will anchor the $2 billion National Harbor project in Prince George's County, has threatened to halt a planned expansion of its facility because of a dispute with the Prince George's County Council over minority business participation in the project.

Gaylord announced with great fanfare in February that more than half a million nights of stay had been booked for the hotel, which does not open until 2008. Interest was so strong in the Potomac riverbank project that company officials said they would increase plans for the hotel's size from 1,500 to 2,000 rooms, making it one of the largest convention hotels on the East Coast.

But the expansion was contingent on the approval of $50 million in county bond financing. The council has scheduled a vote on the financing for Tuesday and is considering whether to make it contingent on minority involvement in the project.

In a letter sent to County Council Chairman Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel) on Thursday, a Gaylord executive warned that the company would stick to its original plans if the council approves the plan with the minority requirements.

"We feel it unfair and inappropriate that the Council could impose such a punitive punishment as withholding the agreed incentive over what could perhaps be a technical infraction pertaining to [minority business] participation, especially after Gaylord will have delivered on its significant commitment of dollar investment, jobs and tax creation and other County economic benefits," wrote Gaylord Senior Vice President Bennett D. Westbrook.

Westbrook wrote that the company was willing to agree that at least 15 percent of the companies involved in construction and operation of the hotel would be certified minority businesses and that it would make a "best effort" to hit 20 percent. But he wrote that a council proposal to deny the previously negotiated county bond financing if the company fails to hit the 15 percent guideline was unacceptable.

Several council members said yesterday that they want to send a message to companies looking to do work in Prince George's that minority business participation is not optional. Prince George's is the nation's most affluent majority black jurisdiction, and council members said it is their responsibility to ensure that wealth from major new developments is shared by all residents.

"I think the citizens of Prince George's County certainly believe that minority businesses should participate in wealth creation that's being generated in this county, certainly when the tax dollars of the citizens of this county are being used," said Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant), the council vice chairman.

Gaylord and county officials have said the property will be a top convention location for the region. It will feature three restaurants, a nightclub, salon, biking path and marina, as well as tens of thousands of square feet of meeting space. County officials had touted Gaylord's decision to expand the project as a sign of the success of their vision for a retail gem on the banks of the Potomac in the southern part of the county, the largest development project in county history.

Exum said she was eager to continue negotiations with Gaylord leading up to Tuesday's meeting. But she said the minority business participation requirements must be given teeth.

"I think it's time that those goals are met," she said. "If they aren't met, there's some penalty attached to that. Period."

Tony Knotts (D-Temple Hills), a council member who represents the Oxon Hill area, which will host the National Harbor project, said the council has a critical opportunity to stand firm in its position on minority business participation.

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