Politics, Rocky Start Cloud Promise of National Harbor

By Ovetta Wiggins and Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 20, 2008

Prince George's County is about to lay claim to one of the biggest development projects ever to hit the Washington region: 300 acres of residential, retail, dining, office and entertainment space on the banks of the Potomac River.

The $4 billion National Harbor is poised not only to transform Prince George's image but also to become an economic engine projected to create more than 5,000 jobs and $130 million in tax revenue each year for the county and state.

"We have been on the back burner for such a long time," said Hubert "Petey" Greene, president of the county's Black Chamber of Commerce. "Now, we have not only stepped up, we've moved ahead."

Yet as the highly anticipated development begins to open, early stumbles and political quarrels threaten to cloud its success and the county's reputation.

Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, the cornerstone of National Harbor in Oxon Hill, opened this month to a public relations nightmare -- some hotel guests contracted norovirus and others found mice in their rooms.

More troublesome than those glitches were the glimpses of the county's political culture that emerged. The same week that Gaylord opened, some political leaders accused National Harbor developer Milton V. Peterson of making racially insensitive remarks. The next week, Peterson was forced to withdraw legislation that would have provided liquor licenses for the entire complex after Prince George's lawmakers criticized the lack of local minority-owned businesses involved in the construction of the project. Restaurants and hotels will now have to seek licenses from the county liquor board.

"We don't want to gain a reputation as being anti-business," said Del. Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George's), expressing concern about fallout from the legislative flap. "You don't wait until the ninth hour to make demands. . . . It's somewhat of an embarrassment to Prince George's County."

The project's debut, coming amid the slowing economy, has some analysts worried. Others question whether local residents, particularly Prince Georgians, will embrace the development.

Peterson, the gregarious Northern Virginia developer behind Fair Lakes in Fairfax and the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring, allows no doubt. He has said that nothing compares to National Harbor.

"If I had to say what personality it has, I'd say it's got the appeal of Marilyn Monroe and the grace and class of Julie Andrews," Peterson told a crowd of real estate agents in 2004.

'Win, Win, Win' for Whom?

Before it was National Harbor, it was PortAmerica, and before that, it was Bay of Americas and Smoot Bay.

For years, developers and county officials agreed to develop the site, only to be thwarted by financing problems and disagreements over what the project should be.

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