MGM National Harbor? You bet.
A state commission awarded Maryland’s sixth and final casino license Friday to MGM Resorts International, which plans to build a $925 million casino complex at National Harbor in Prince George’s County.
MGM’s plans call for a dramatic gambling resort on 23 acres overlooking the Potomac River, near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, with an 18-story, 300-suite hotel that will tower over the District.
The soaring casino, from the same company that owns Bellagio, MGM Grand and many other high-end, high-wattage gambling resorts, has the potential to change not only the region’s skyline, but also the calculus for where tourists stay, where business groups hold conventions and where Washington lobbyists entertain.
The property, slated to open in mid-2016, will be within easy Uber range of official Washington: less than 10 miles from the U.S. Capitol and 11 from the White House. It will feature 3,600 slot machines, 140 gaming tables, a concert theater, several celebrity-chef-driven restaurants, a spa, luxury retail stores, a reflecting pool and other amenities.
“For us, it’s a great calling card. It elevates the cachet of Prince George’s County,” said County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who long favored putting the casino on the Potomac. “But this is a big deal for the entire region.”
In winning the right to put a bit of Las Vegas on the Potomac, MGM National Harbor will inject a city of lawyers and wonks — where gray is forever the new black — with a major dose of flash. What happens in Washington may not stay in Washington, moving down the river to Prince George’s, once a backwater for luxury development.
“This is a big day for National Harbor,” said developer Milton V. Peterson, who called the addition of the casino “sort of the crown” in his 350-acre mini-city, currently anchored by the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, 70 restaurants and stores, and the new Tanger Outlets mall. Peterson is working on adding more hotels and time-share units to National Harbor to accommodate the influx of gamblers, he said.
MGM will break ground as soon as it receives clearance from the county, said Jim Murren, the company’s chairman and chief executive. A massive hiring spree is coming, too: MGM National Harbor plans to employ about 4,000 people.
“I believe that this will be the most successful commercial [gambling] resort in the United States . . . outside of Las Vegas,” Murren declared. His definition of success? “The most profitable.”
The 5 to 2 vote by the Maryland Video Lottery Facility Location Commission marked the second high-stakes win in a long and costly campaign waged by MGM, which spent about $40 million last year to support the state’s 2012 referendum to expand gambling.
MGM won the lucrative casino license over proposals from two Pennsylvania gambling operators: Greenwood Racing, which wanted to build Parx Casino Hotel and Spa off Indian Head Highway, and Penn National Gaming, which pitched the state on Hollywood Casino Resort at Rosecroft Raceway.
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The two votes against MGM’s proposal came from Rona E. Kramer and James J. King, who said they favored Parx because it would generate economic development in a part of the county that needed it more than National Harbor. As did other members of the panel, they praised Parx for offering a higher tax rate on slots revenue than MGM, 61 percent to MGM’s 56. But that casino plan was doomed by its location. The casino could not be built without major improvements to Indian Head Highway, and the commissioners said there was no legal guarantee that Parx would win the necessary state approvals to ease traffic or fully fund the required roadwork.
“The Parx site, to me, was undesirable,” Commissioner Ella H. Pierce said.
Penn National’s bid for a $700 million casino at Rosecroft Raceway received no support from the commission, although several members lamented the exclusion of horse-racing considerations from the criteria they were legally bound to consider.
Commissioners Linda Read and D. Bruce Poole suggested that they might have ranked Rosecroft’s proposal first had the horse industry been part of the state’s calculus.
But it wasn’t, and both commissioners ultimately favored MGM’s plan. Penn National officials did not respond to requests for comment about the commission’s action on Friday.
Maryland was a latecomer to legalized casinos, but there are now four in the Free State. A fifth gambling property — the Horseshoe, in Baltimore — is scheduled to open next year as Maryland continues to raise the stakes in a casino war with Delaware and West Virginia.
When MGM opens, motorists traveling a 43-mile stretch between Baltimore and the Washington suburb of Oxon Hill will encounter three major casinos, each with more than 100 table games, large poker rooms and more slot machines than any single property on the Vegas Strip.
MGM National Harbor is likely to be the biggest winner of all, with third-year gambling revenues expected to be in excess of $700 million, according to consultants hired to produce market assessments for the state.
The resort will draw gamblers and entertainment-seekers who live and work in Washington and, especially, its suburbs, MGM officials say. Roughly half of the property’s gambling revenue — at least $350 million in fiscal 2019 alone — is expected to flow across the Potomac River from Virginia, one of just 11 states currently without a single commercial or Indian casino.
The nod from the state location commission is not the final hurdle MGM faces in making its vision a reality. The company’s building plans at National Harbor are subject to approval by Prince George’s County’s Planning Board and County Council — a process expected to take several months.
MGM was widely perceived to be the front-runner for the license, but Parx officials repeatedly proclaimed that their proposal called for the most slot machines (4,750) and a higher tax rate than MGM’s. Penn National offered to pay the higher slots tax among the applicants — 62 percent — and to turn over all of its Rosecroft gambling profits in perpetuity, to benefit the county health-care system as well as a new retirement benefit for teachers and other community organizations and nonprofit groups.
But in selecting MGM over Parx and Hollywood at Rosecroft, the seven-member commission decided that the National Harbor proposal best met the state’s criteria. Six consulting firms hired by the state to analyze the three proposals put MGM on top in nearly every category — from projected revenue and economic impact to traffic considerations and marketing expenditures.
The companies pitching the Parx and Hollywood projects disputed the consultants’ findings. Tony Ricci, chief executive of Parx, said the revenue studies, in particular, were “fatally flawed,” and his attorney asked the commission for a delay in the licensing decision — a request that was noted but not honored.
On Friday, though, Ricci said he thought that the process was fair and that commissioners weighed his company’s objections to revenue estimates even though there was no delay in the proceedings.
“I’m sure MGM will give them a great product,” Ricci said. Asked what Parx does next, he said, “We go back to Pennsylvania.”
Jonathan O’Connell contributed to this report.