MGM National Harbor opened a year ago to an eager Prince George’s County, marking what officials said was a new era of economic growth and prosperity for the county.
For the most part, the casino has lived up to expectations, according to county officials and residents. The $1.4 billion resort in suburban Washington quickly became Maryland’s most profitable casino, bringing 6 million visitors, thousands of jobs and pumping millions of dollars into the local economy.
“It’s been the economic game changer for us,” said Thomas M. Himler, a top county economic development official. “It’s kind of the wow factor that we hadn’t had before.”
Prince George’s received $16 million in revenue from MGM in the casino’s first six months of operations — not including funds distributed by the state. This fiscal year, the county expects to receive about $32 million, of which just over $7 million will go to neighborhoods within three miles of the casino. Nearly $3 million will be spent for improvements to Route 210, more than $500,000 for police and fire services, and $1.6 million for classroom and technology upgrades, according to county budget documents.
Schools and public safety agencies will get about $10 million each.
“Without this [casino revenue], these resources wouldn’t otherwise be there,” Himler said. “And that’s a fact.”
County and MGM officials also tout the nearly 4,000 jobs that have been added — and hundreds more through contracts.
But labor leaders say the numbers are misleading. The majority of casino jobs are not the high-paying, middle-class-wage jobs MGM and county officials promised when they were vying for the state’s sixth casino license four years ago, they say.
Of those nearly 4,000 workers, a good share are classified as part-time, which means they do not receive health-care coverage and other benefits, according to union leaders. They also contend the casino jobs don’t pay as well as comparable positions elsewhere. For example, the starting salary for cleaners at MGM, they note, is $14.25 an hour — at least $5 an hour less than cleaners at the nearby Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center.
“Here we are a year later and we still don’t have good jobs,” said John Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 25, which represents workers at Gaylord and 1,200 workers at MGM. “People keep saying good jobs, good jobs, good jobs, but nobody is held accountable to that standard.”
Boardman said 90 percent of workers at the Gaylord, a 2,000-room hotel in the waterfront area, have health insurance, compared with about one-third of his members at MGM.
The union, which endorsed the casino project as an opportunity to create jobs, negotiated a labor contract with MGM for six months this year without success and is in arbitration, seeking better wages.
MGM spokesman Malik Husser said wages at the resort “are competitive in comparison to the market and other gaming entities in the region.” He declined to say how many of the workers are part-time or what benefits they receive.
The casino also declined to say what its average wages are but noted that many of its positions are jobs in which employees receive tips.
State, county and business leaders say MGM has met the goals set in an agreement with the county. For example, MGM pledged 40 percent of its workforce would be Prince George’s residents; it hit 47 percent. In construction contracting, MGM has paid nearly $368 million to minority and women-owned businesses, meeting another target. It has donated $1 million to local institutions, as it pledged.
County officials said casino revenue has become critical to funding programs in the school system, increasing the police force and restoring services, such as library hours, that fell victim to budget cuts in recent years. MGM-related revenue is nearly 20 percent of all new revenue in the county’s budget.
“We made a lot of promises in order to acquire the license. . . . There was skepticism that we could live up to those,” said Anton Nikodemus, chief operating officer for regional operations of MGM Resorts International. “We not only met those expectations, but we exceeded them.”
Enrique Young said his security services firm grew from about 20 workers to 112 after being awarded a contract with the resort last year. On any given day, Young has about 50 of his workers in the resort’s 3,000-seat theater: They are the ushers, ticket takers and back-of-house security, assisting during concerts, boxing matches and comedy shows.
“We are able to provide jobs for county residents. That’s huge,” said Young, a retired Army lieutenant colonel.
Bowie resident Regina Minor, who works as an usher for evening events at the casino, said the job has turned into a good source of extra income for her family. The job is flexible, she said, which allows her to do it along with her full-time job in telecommunications. “It helps pay the bills,” Minor, 54, said.
Tyrone Johnson, 35, said his $40,000 salary as a slots guest service representative allowed him to leave jobs at two Northwest Washington hotels for one just 10 minutes from home.
“I had no idea what it was like, but now I love it,” he said.
Meanwhile, many of the nightmare scenarios related to huge traffic jams and increased crime from the influx of visitors to the area haven’t materialized, residents and officials said.
Traffic patterns have settled since the casino’s early days and while counts nearby are up from about 800 vehicles an hour to 2,500, backups have not been a major problem, they said. “Traffic is a nonissue,” said Kent Digby, a senior vice president for operations at National Harbor.
The Peterson Companies, owner of National Harbor, spent $10 million on improvements before the casino resort opened, including road widening and a new access to the waterfront area from the Capital Beltway. Those improvements and traffic signal synchronization were critical, officials and neighbors say.
“Our worst fears about MGM-generated traffic did not come true,” said Ron Weiss, a Fort Washington resident, crediting the county’s traffic plan leading up to the resort’s opening and coordination with MGM and National Harbor with easing the addition of thousands — as many as 17,000 daily — of visitors.
According to MGM, based on membership in its casino loyalty program, about 40 percent of its players are coming from Maryland, 40 percent from Virginia and 10 percent from the District and elsewhere. The numbers do not include visitors coming for the overall resort experience.
“Even some of the skeptics will admit, this is better than they thought it would be,” said Zeno St. Cyr II, another Fort Washington resident and president of the South County Economic Development Association. “While crime and traffic remain concerns by the community at large, I think it’s pretty safe to say that most residents no longer see MGM as exacerbating fears in these two areas.”
Crime at the resort is comparable to what other Maryland casinos experience, according to data tracked by the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency.
MGM reported 90 thefts and robberies and 50 altercations at the property from January to September, according to the gaming agency. Its main competitor, Live Casino & Hotel in Hanover, had 95 thefts and robberies and 46 physical altercations during the same period.
Prince George’s Police Chief Henry P. Stawinski III said crime trends in the vicinity of the casino haven’t shifted, nor is there any indication the casino is contributing to public safety concerns as some neighbors had feared.
Asked to provide crime data, the department said a reporter would have to file a Maryland Public Information Act request.
“MGM has integrated itself well into our community and it is extraordinary that such as large endeavor, with such a big footprint, opened up and we haven’t seen any of the things that people were very concerned about,” Stawinski said.
As projected, MGM’s success has taken a hit on its rivals, chiefly Live casino in Anne Arundel County, where revenue is down an average of 17.5 percent since MGM opened. Horseshoe in Baltimore and Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in West Virginia also have reported losses.
The addition of MGM, however, has taken Maryland’s gaming industry to new levels. For the first time, casino revenue surpassed lottery revenue, a testament to the pace of growth of the industry, officials said.
“MGM has certainly been a big part of the reason why we have had an all-time record in revenue,” said Gordon Medenica, director of the state gaming agency. Medenica and other industry experts say they anticipate the other casinos will recover from the losses. Live casino, the largest in the state, is building a hotel and conference center to in an effort to remain competitive.
Total monthly revenue from all six Maryland casinos rose an average of 38 percent after MGM began operations, according to the agency’s year-to-year comparisons. The industry, which contributes a portion of its profits to the state’s Education Trust Fund, set a record in March, generating $141.2 million in revenue. Last month, gambling revenue totaled $130.5 million — of which nearly $1.2 million went to the state’s general fund and $38.3 million to the Education Trust Fund.
MGM, meanwhile, has topped $50 million in monthly revenue seven times this year, according to state data.
As MGM enters its second year, the company says it wants to continue to be partners with the county and community.
“MGM National Harbor’s emphasis from day one was to bring new opportunities and experiences to Prince George’s County,” said Melonie Johnson, who was named the resort’s new president and chief operating officer this month. “I am honored to have this opportunity to help craft the next chapter.”