It's taken three owners, two lawsuits, one foreclosure, endless environmental reviews, $160 million in public financing, a new interchange off the Beltway and creation of a special tax district -- but finally, after 20 years, National Harbor is about to rise from the scenic banks of the Potomac, just south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
It's hard to exaggerate the significance of this mixed-use project. At $2 billion, it is the biggest private construction and development project anywhere in the Washington region, and the biggest ever for Prince George's County, which up to now has been neglected by private investors, largely because of race. When it is finished in 10 years, National Harbor will generate as much as $100 million a year in taxes for the state and county. Hundreds of mostly well-to-do people will live there, tens of thousands will visit each year, while thousands of jobs will be created in its hotels, shops, restaurants, offices and convention center. One can even imagine National Harbor will one day be a stop for the Metro and a new water-taxi service linking it with Alexandria, National Airport, Georgetown and the new Anacostia waterfront.
It was 20 years ago that county officials announced a plan called Bay of Americas, only to encounter the first wave of determined community opposition from environmentalists and local neighbors. Four years later, developer James Lewis unveiled a grandiose plan for a mixed-use development known as Port America that included an office tower that would have been the tallest between New York and Atlanta. Fresh opposition from Congress and the FAA helped delay things long enough for the real estate market to crash and the property to wind up in the hands of the federal agency charged with cleaning up the savings and loan mess.
The hero in this story is Milt Peterson, whose Fairfax firm has developed retail and office properties at Fair Lakes, Tysons Corner and Fairfax Station. Ever since he bought the property from the government seven years ago, Peterson has invested more than half his time in National Harbor, along with $100 million to acquire the land and hire a small army of consultants to try to work out the details with the Army Corps of Engineers, county officials and the small group of Oxon Hill residents determined to kill the project.
In the end, however, it was Peterson's decision to follow the suggestion of Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson and negotiate personally with the project's opponents that finally produced last week's breakthrough agreement. As a result of that and earlier concessions, there will be fewer boats and less office space than originally planned, along with more housing. Peterson convinced folks he's uninterested in widening a nearby road or having gambling at the project as long as it is not allowed at some competing venue nearby. And he threw in a yet-undisclosed commitment for minority jobs and contracts along with $3.5 million for planning a revitalization of Oxon Hill's existing business areas.
Peterson's development partner at National Harbor is Gaylord Entertainment, which has parlayed its ownership of Nashville's Grand Ole Opry into a national hotel, convention and entertainment business that offers corporations and associations "themed" meeting venues. After taking on mountains of debt and going through a corporate restructuring, Gaylord is now packing them in at the Opry and at newer facilities in Orlando and Dallas. In Washington, Gaylord plans to spend $500 million for a 1,500-room hotel and meeting facility that may look to jazz and blues for its entertainment theme.
Up to this point, National Harbor has been a metaphor for what's been wrong with Prince George's economic development efforts -- an over-ambitious project that got hopelessly bogged down in the opaque, racially-charged politics of a county with a chip on its shoulder, a distrust of markets and an inability to put the public good over narrow, local interests. Perhaps now that it's underway, National Harbor will be the signal that Prince George's is ready for the development big leagues.
Steven Pearlstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.