MGM National Harbor will have its grand opening Dec. 8, officials announced Monday.
The $1.4 billion casino resort will debut just in time for the holiday season, and in the next few weeks, officials will announce inaugural events and functions at its live entertainment venue.
Casino executives promise an experience unlike that offered by their other properties — including a boutique-style hotel, integrated 3,000-seat theater, conference center, art, myriad dining options at different prices and a conservatory with flower sculptures that officials hope will become a must-have backdrop for selfies. Oh, and then there is the casino.
“When people come see it, they are going to be awestruck,” said Bill Boasberg, the resort’s general manager. “There is going to be something for everyone in this resort. We are not just targeting casino customers.”
It has been a tough road for the state’s sixth casino to get to this point. The Maryland General Assembly approved legislation allowing Las Vegas-style casino gambling in Prince George’s during a special session in 2012; the measure passed by the House by the bare minimum.
Opponents argued that the state risked an oversaturated gambling market, while supporters touted thousands of new jobs and tens of millions of dollars in additional revenue for the state and the county.
The Washington region’s first casino also is one of the largest private investments in the area’s history. It brings a much-needed boost to southern Prince George’s, which has long suffered from a lack of economic investment and job opportunities.
The resort began taking reservations Monday to stay at the property beginning Dec. 10.
If table games and slot machines on a 125,000-square-foot casino floor don’t appeal to people, Boasberg said, there are other entertainment options for tourists and Washington-area residents alike, not to mention an outdoor patio space for viewing sunsets. The resort’s design allows guests looking for dining or entertainment to avoid the casino.
“When we go around the region to speak, people get very excited for these different offerings,” Boasberg added.
The 24-story luxury hotel promises to offer style and exclusivity, officials said. With more than 300 rooms — compared with the MGM Grand’s 5,000 rooms in Las Vegas — the floor-to-ceiling glass-windowed suites will run between $399 and $599 per night.
The complex’s construction took longer than expected in what was a complicated build on a 23-acre parcel of land overlooking the Potomac River. It involved hauling hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of soil and updating plans to fit the aesthetic that casino officials were looking for, Boasberg said. Costs increased half a billion dollars over the original estimate.
Under an agreement with the Maryland Video Lottery Facility Location Commission, MGM was obligated to open in August, but the panel granted the company a six-month extension, giving it until February to begin operations.
“The news that December 8th is the official opening date is very exciting for Prince George’s County and the region,” said county spokesman Scott Peterson. “This billion-dollar project has led to the hiring of thousands of workers to build this incredible facility and will employ thousands of people in the county and around the region as well as provide tens of millions of dollars that will help us improve the quality of life in Prince George’s County.”
Boasberg said officials don’t have estimates yet for how many people to expect during opening week, but he said the roads will be ready for the traffic influx — a worry for nearby Prince George’s County residents. The county said it is working with National Harbor, MGM and the public sector to mitigate traffic problems.
Vehicle traffic to National Harbor could more than double when the resort opens, according to projections. If estimates hold true and up to 20,000 daily visitors frequent the gambling resort, there could be backups with heavier volumes on Interstate 95 around the Woodrow Wilson Bridge on the Maryland-Virginia border.
Late last month, National Harbor and casino officials announced $10 million in road improvements — from road widening to new interstate access — to be completed before the resort’s opening to help improve traffic flow in one of the most congested areas in the region.
National Harbor and nearby Tanger Outlets draw thousands of visitors each weekend, putting a strain on Oxon Hill Road and Monument Avenue, where a new traffic signal will be installed. New inbound and outbound lanes from Interstate 295 and the Wilson Bridge will ease the flow of vehicles into the resort complex, which will be open 24 hours.
“Residents are looking forward to having another entertainment venue to go to, not just for the gambling, but the performances that are expected to be there and the restaurants and shopping venues,” said Zeno W. St. Cyr II, a Fort Washington resident and community leader. “But along with that anticipation for the opening, there’s also a little apprehension, and the apprehension is for the traffic that is expected, especially in the days and weeks after opening.”
But it’s not just the guests. The new entertainment venue will bring thousands of commuters to the area for work. Boasberg said the complex has hired about 350 employees and has extended employment offers to more than 2,200 people. In total,MGM plans to hire 3,600 workers.
Of those hires, about 40 percent must be Prince George’s residents, according to the commitments MGM made to the county in winning the sixth and final casino license in the state. Boasberg said MGM has met those goals.
As of June, MGM National Harbor had paid more than $220 million to minority businesses and awarded 148 firms contracts during the construction. Prince George’s businesses had received $170 million in payments, and 88 local firms had won contracts — exceeding the benchmarks outlined in a community benefits agreement that elected leaders negotiated with the company, officials said.
MGM officials said more opportunities are ahead for local businesses, including artistic displays and culinary offerings.
Still, some lawmakers and residents have questioned MGM’s transparency in sharing information about its hiring and contracting and have urged it to step up efforts to give more county residents and firms the jobs they were promised.
Bruce Branch, executive director of the Maryland Business Clergy Partnership, said there is concern that many of the new hires will be from Atlantic City, where MGM has been actively recruiting workers from that community’s shuttered casinos.
Boasberg acknowledged in an interview last week that casino workers at other properties are applying for jobs at MGM National Harbor and are excited to be part of the new resort. “We don’t want to see transplants from Atlantic City,” Branch said. “Obviously, they have experience. But the deal was to hire local residents.”
Branch was involved in a lawsuit filed last year claiming that the casino giant had not complied with minority-business contracting standards. The group has since withdrawn the suit.
But Branch says his group has continued to hear complaints from “qualified minority-owned businesses” about being denied contracts.
“They have given us some token contracts, but the bottom line is our community has not received the big jobs,” he said. “This has been a slap in the face of every minority business in the county, but there is really nothing the community can do. It is a fight that has ended.”
Still, he said, “at the end of the day, my prayer is that they become a good corporate neighbor. They have made progress, but not enough progress.”
MGM officials said that as of June, about 37 percent of contracts had gone to minority-owned businesses. The goal set in the agreement with the county was 30 percent. Those contracts range from $1,000 to $10 million, an MGM spokeswoman said.
Estime, a Lanham-based company, won a $10 million contract for work on drywall installation and will serve as a purchaser for Grainger, a contractor MGM is using to purchase supplies.
“We never thought we would have the opportunity to work on the MGM National Harbor project,” said Lunique Estime, the company’s chief executive officer and co-founder.
David Harrington, president of the Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber is working closely with MGM and recently sponsored a showcase of the opportunities they have for local small businesses.
“I think they’ve made a very good effort and again the story hasn’t even been told yet,” he said. “The fact that it’s opening will be the beginning of the story. We will continue to work with them on other contracts as they unfold.
“Like any company, they want to demonstrate that they are putting together a good-faith effort to reach out to broad array of businesses,” Harrington said.
The hotel resort’s centerpiece will be a two-story glass-covered atrium featuring a horticultural showcase with more than 70,000 flowers designed into art pieces. The company also commissioned works from local artists and a piece by music legend Bob Dylan.
In one of the resort’s celebrity restaurants, chef José Andrés plans to incorporate local Chesapeake Bay fare into his new seafood restaurant — also expected to open in early December. Many of the menu offerings will be familiar to East Coast residents — clam chowder, Crab Louie — but will feature culinary touches of Andrés’s native Asturias, a region in Spain.
“The outdoor terrace will be neat place where we will re-create the crab-house experience when the weather is warm,” Andrés said. “I will also bring in what I love, which is eating seafood with cider. . . . It will be a Spain-meets-Maryland experience.”
Andrés plans to offer local ciders and import his Spanish favorites. Small plates — a chef speciality — will have a place on the menu, as will an oyster recipe he has been working on for five years. He said he also wants to serve snakehead, an invasive species of fish taking over local Bay ecosystems, to expose diners to an environmental problem that can also be a tasty dish.
“There are plenty of good fish people haven’t tried before,” Andrés said. “It’s about restaurants giving it an opportunity.”
Boasberg offered few other details about MGM National Harbor’s debut, saying much of it is still in the planning phase. But he has no doubt that the resort’s timing (near the holidays), location (at the locus of three major population centers) and amenities will make this property one of MGM’s most successful.
“Given our extensive investment, we are extremely excited and very positive on what we are going to do,” Boasberg said about the casino’s future revenue. “We are not giving out specific numbers, but we think we have the best location and think it’s second to none.”