The Deal That Sealed National Harbor

By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2008

The deal that led to the making of National Harbor happened not over a handshake, but a stare.

As Wayne K. Curry recalled, there were two men in the room, he and Milton V. Peterson. They were the perfect pair: Curry, a flamboyant lawyer and the first black elected county executive in Prince George's County, and Peterson, an ambitious Northern Virginia developer.

During that meeting in the early 1990s, Curry and Peterson were discussing public financing for National Harbor when they got into a verbal battle. They sent their aides out of the room and then just stared at each other.

"The development definitely stopped for a minute while we looked at each other," Curry said recently over lunch. In the end, Curry threw his support behind Peterson's project. The men reached an understanding: If the project was going to be built, it would take a partnership, a little give and take.

Today, as Peterson and county officials -- although not Curry -- will celebrate the grand opening of the first phase of the $4 billion National Harbor in Oxon Hill, it's clear that the public-private partnership was key to developing a prime piece of real estate that had languished for decades.

"The story can only be told if you talk about the public investment put on the table," said Jeffrey A. Finkle, president and chief executive of the Washington-based International Economic Development Council.

The county offered key concessions under Curry and his successor, Jack B. Johnson, issuing $160 million in bonds for roads and sewers and allowing for a less rigorous review process to speed things along. Peterson invested $380 million and borrowed $450 million for the project. He also agreed to use minority or local contractors for a large share of the construction work.

"Certainly, the private-public partnership was pretty crucial," said Chris Hanessian, chief operating officer for the mixed-use University Town Center in Hyattsville. "Even more crucial was [Peterson's] deep pockets. He had a lot of money, and patient money. And times have changed in Prince George's over the last five years. It has become economically feasible to build a project like this."

The Right Time, People and Place

The evolution of National Harbor is as much about timing and Peterson's passion for the project as it as about the partnership between his Fairfax-based company and Prince George's.

"We're putting something fabulous on the river that says it's special," Peterson told The Washington Post last year. "It's going to be POW! It's going to be explosive! We're going to change Washington."

Before Peterson, other developers had grand visions for the 300-acre site. The land has water access and is near Washington and Old Town Alexandria.

The history of the site, once an Indian burial ground, made the land even richer. About 300 years ago, it was part of a huge land grant from Lord Baltimore, the founder of Maryland, to John Addison, an early settler and head of a prominent family that built large homes on the site known as Oxon Hill.

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