When it was time last week for the public to weigh in on the three proposals under consideration for a casino license in Prince George’s County, one appeared to enjoy, by far, the greatest support among community leaders and other residents: the one for MGM National Harbor.
At public hearings before a state commission, many residents said National Harbor was the best fit because it is removed from residential neighborhoods and is an established commercial and employment center.
“National Harbor is already an entertainment, shopping, tourist and convention destination. It makes sense to put this venue there,” said Zeno W. St. Cyr II, president of the Riverbend Citizens Homeowners Association in Fort Washington. “If the lottery commission selects the National Harbor site, then that would only further enhance the property as the economic engine that it already is and will only create an even larger employment hub in this part of the county.”
The three sites under consideration for Maryland’s sixth casino are within five miles of one another in an area of southern Prince George’s County where residents have long grumbled about limited job opportunities, shopping and entertainment.
And all three are trying hard to curry favor with the locals: Penn National Gaming has promised to return “100 percent of its profits” from a $700 million casino at Rosecroft Raceway to the Prince George’s County community. Greenwood Racing offered to pay for $100 million in improvements to Indian Head Highway if the state approves a $761 million Parx casino in Fort Washington. And MGM announced that Radio One owner Cathy Hughes and her son would invest $40 million in a $925 million casino overlooking the Capital Beltway at National Harbor, adding a prominent African American stake to MGM’s proposal.
At the hearings of the Maryland Video Lottery Facility Location Commission, some residents spoke against gambling in general. A few argued for Penn National and Parx, saying their proposals would bring much-needed economic development. Others said they found the Penn National and Parx promises hard to believe.
Still others asked the panel to protect their neighborhoods and historic districts. They said their biggest concern was that the state pick the site that would have the least effect on their residential lifestyle.
“I think it is going to be a big, gaudy building on Indian Head Highway,” said Ron Weiss, a retired Air Force officer who has lived in Fort Washington for 30 years and who testified against the Parx proposal. “It just clashes with what we are used to and what we came here for.”
National Harbor, a 300-acre mini-city on the banks of the Potomac River, has the infrastructure needed for a casino at a location near interstates 495 and 295, its supporters said. A casino there, they said, would be convenient for them without encroaching on their back yards.
National Harbor “is the best location. It is the most accepted we have locally,” Del. Jay Walker (D-Prince George’s), told the panel Wednesday during the hearing on the Parx proposal. He said that at public meetings he held on the casino proposals, most residents surveyed expressed a preference for the National Harbor site.
Residents and county officials said voters who supported the expansion of gambling in Maryland in last year’s referendum were under the impression that only two sites would be competing — National Harbor and Rosecroft.
At Rosecroft, limited transportation infrastructure is a problem, some community leaders said. They said the site is about a mile from the nearest I-95 exit and is reached by way of a two-lane road through a residential neighborhood. Although they would like to see the area revitalized, they were skeptical that a casino is the right option.
The Parx site is near the Livingston Square Shopping Center in one of the most congested areas of southern Prince George’s. Residents said adding a casino would exacerbate traffic congestion along Route 210, also known as Indian Head Highway. Others said the Parx site is too close to the Broad Creek Historic District, which has been prone to flooding. And it is near a 300-year-old church that has no desire to have a casino as a neighbor.
A casino “directly across from St. Johns Episcopal Church, established on this site, worshiping God since 1692, is as morally insensitive, reprehensible and repulsive as proposing to put a brothel there,” the Rev. Marc Lawrence Britt, rector of the church, told members of the committee Wednesday.
The Rev. Pastor Claudia M. Bias, pastor of the Redeemers House of Worship at Fort Washington Road, also took a stand against a Parx casino. “We do not need gambling, period,” she said to applause from the packed auditorium. “However, since the community voted for it, it should be at the Harbor.”
A few residents expressed support for the Rosecroft and Parx plans, with some citing the need for improvements in the areas around National Harbor. They complained that the waterfront development’s success has not benefited nearby neighborhoods.
“Give these guys a chance,” said Edward Matthews, a business owner who lives near the proposed Parx site. Matthews welcomed Greenwood’s pledge to fix the traffic problem on Route 210. “They are going to help us,” he said.
The Town Council of Forest Heights and Mayor Jacqueline Goodall have been among the most notable opponents to a casino at National Harbor. The council issued a resolution opposing the National Harbor site, about a mile away from town. In public appearances, Goodall, a supporter of the Rosecroft plan, said a casino at National Harbor would increase crime and bring more traffic to the area.
Still, several groups said they prefer the National Harbor location because it is more isolated from residential communities and is designed to accommodate high levels of traffic.
The Greater South County Coalition for Absolute Progress, expressing support for MGM, called National Harbor a major employment hub and an economic engine for Prince George’s. Business groups and labor unions that support MGM Resorts say it would bring thousands more jobs to a booming employment center located near the District.
About 6,000 people work at National Harbor in stores, restaurants, hotels and conference accommodations. Tanger Outlets at National Harbor is expected to add about 900 jobs when it opens next month.
The Indian Head Highway Area Action Council, which represents several civic, citizens and neighborhood groups, said in written testimony that MGM’s plan is the “least harmful of the three applicants” and that a casino at National Harbor “would generate greater customer traffic and therefore greater overall revenue for the State and the County than the other proposed sites.”