Business eyes big payoff from National Harbor casino -- Gazette.Net


Prince George's businesses are looking forward to the economic promise of a new casino resort now that state voters have authorized the county for a license.

Even though the measure doesn’t specify where in the county the casino would be built, National Harbor in Oxon Hill is the front-runner.

“We’re extremely ecstatic for Question 7 passing. It means more tax revenue for the state of Maryland and more business for the area,” said David Spinogatti, managing director of the Fireman Hospitality Group, which owns restaurants Bond 45 and Fiorella Pizzeria e Caffe at the $4 billion mixed-use complex on the banks of the Potomac River.

Spinogatti said he is fully confident that an $800 million casino by MGM Resorts International of Las Vegas will bring in jobs and contracts for local residents and businesses.

“Starting today, MGM’s talented team of designers and resort experts begin work on our proposal for a great destination resort for the people of Prince George’s County and the State of Maryland,” Jim Murren, chairman and CEO of MGM, said in a statement following last week’s vote. “We stand ready to compete with all comers for this license and the privilege to bring an MGM resort to National Harbor.”

Murren also praised the voters for choosing “common sense” over a “campaign of unrestrained distortion.”

“Had this measure not passed, we would have missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for incredible investment in our business community,” said M.H. Jim Estepp, president and CEO of the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable, which supported the measure. “This is more than just gaming. This is a world-class resort.”

He referred to the $130.5 million in slots revenues that the Maryland Live! casino in Hanover has generated since it opened in June, saying that Prince George’s now has the opportunity to host a similar venue.

David Harrington, former Prince George’s County councilman and CEO of the Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce, said the MGM casino would complement the development under way at National Harbor. He said the chamber will be at the forefront in ensuring that casino jobs — many of which would be union jobs — are filled by county residents.

The chamber — and labor unions — also supported the measure.

“Hopefully, it provides a true opportunity for Prince George’s,” said Malik Ellis, CEO of Horizon Real Estate Group in Greenbelt. “We haven’t seen anything that requires them to [hire and contract locally]. I think we should we should learn lessons from other National Harbor projects to ensure Prince George’s is a true participant.”

Another prominent county business leader, M.A. “Mike” Little of B&W Solutions in Oxon Hill, added that MGM has shown a commitment toward “as many local hires as possible” and recognizes the importance and value of the local business impact.

But one National Harbor business owner also was concerned about the possibility for more crime in the area.

“The harbor does a good job with security, but that’s the sort of thing that comes with casinos,” said Toni Foster, owner of Critique Boutique.

Despite her concerns, Foster said, she believes a casino will bring more money and jobs to National Harbor and that keeping money in the state and the county is “good for us.”

Questions linger

But while many businesses in the state and county are ready to seize opportunities posed by a new casino, the referendum’s results are being contested in court.

“There remains a question as to the validity of the outcome, given a legal challenge that has been filed by an outside group as to what constitutes a ‘qualified voter’ in this election. We’ll be exploring that issue in the coming days,” Karen Bailey, spokeswoman for Penn National Gaming of Wyomissing, Pa., wrote in an email to The Gazette.

Former Prince George’s County councilman Thomas E. Dernoga has questioned discrepancies between the Maryland Constitution and the bill the General Assembly passed in August regarding just how many votes are needed to pass the referendum. The constitution requires a “majority of qualified voters in the state,” while the bill requires only a “majority of the voters in Maryland voting on the question.”

Dernoga, who has referred to the discrepancies as “an issue of plain language,” filed suit in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court over the issue just before the election. Both Penn and Dernoga claim that Penn is not part of the lawsuit, although The Washington Post reported last month that Dernoga acknowledged taking $1,000 from Penn to organize opposition at his voting precinct.

Penn, the sole donor to the committee opposing the referendum, contributed $41.5 million to the anti-casino effort, according to state records. Penn owns Hollywood Casino Perryville, Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington and Hollywood Casino at Charles Town (W.Va.) Races.

All told, both the opposing and supporting committees raised a total of more than $92 million for the campaign.

Besides referring to the legal challenge, Penn was disappointed with the results, Bailey said.

“We spent a lot of time, energy and resources to educate votes on the flaws of Issue 7,” she said. “We appreciate all those who stood up against this unseemly back room deal with National Harbor and for those who supported Rosecroft having a fair opportunity to compete for a gaming license in Maryland, and to help secure the long term viability of racing in Maryland.”

Both Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) have supported awarding the slots license to the National Harbor site.

Bailey would not comment on Rosecroft’s future, but Penn officials previously have said that Rosecroft, which Penn bought out of bankruptcy last year, cannot sustain itself without an alternative form of revenue — such as slots and-or table games.

“If the state chooses to sole-source things to National Harbor, that will end the conversation,” Bailey said in August.