Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III introduced a plan last fall and has seen it through to a November referendum where Maryland voters get to decide its fate.

Baker wants a Las Vegas-style casino hotel at National Harbor where guests and visitors can enjoy gaming and other entertainment. In a county looking to spark economic development, Baker said this facility could jumpstart things.

“It will spur economic development in the southern part of the county and will help create an offshoot economy,” Baker said.

“There’s not a single development project that would generate as much revenues as a gaming facility at National Harbor,” Baker said. “We’re talking anywhere from $40 to $60 million per year.”

The fight to get the issue placed on the November ballot wasn’t easy. The issue wasn’t resolved in the regular General Assembly session, where debate caused the state to miss a deadline for approving the spending plan for fiscal year 2013.

That forced another special session to approve the spending plan. Then, after MGM Resorts International jumped in the game and provided something tangible for officials to see, a second special session was called specifically to put the issue to bed.

Those struggles really put Baker’s plan or any future plans to place a gaming facility in Prince George’s County in jeopardy. Despite that, the Baker administration knew there would be pushback.

“You had folks who had interests in how this was going to be resolved and they wanted to make sure that their concerns were addressed as well,” said Brad Frome, Baker’s deputy chief of staff. “That helped lead us to the bill that was adopted because it does take into account some of these other interests and it also kind of explains the delay and how long it took for the general assembly to address this issue.”

Those interests Frome speaks of would mostly come from David Cordish, owner of Maryland Live! casino at Arundel Mills, and residents in Anne Arundel County who believe that casino revenue and other potential income would be negatively impacted by a National Harbor facility.

Due to that, concessions were made to mitigate the possible damaging economic impact of a National Harbor casino to Maryland Live! casino at Arundel Mills and the Caesar’s casino, which would be located at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. Maryland Live! would have its tax rate lowered 8 percent while Caesar’s rate would be lowered 7 percent. MGM and Caesars also agreed to purchase the slot machines to be used at their facilities instead of the state purchasing the machines.

Then there is the Stop Slots group headed by former Del. Gerron Levi (D). She has consistently refuted numbers projected by the Baker administration and told the AFRO on several occasions that Baker should focus on fixing the county’s foreclosure crisis rather than adding slots. Despite the issue going to voters, Levi remains resolute about continuing the fight.

“We’re going to continue to oppose it and inform the public about damaging features of the dramatic expansion of gambling in Prince George’s,” Levi said. “This could leave a dramatic footprint for a predatory industry and it has the potential to change the face of our community.”

If Maryland voters approve the site, it’s not a given that it’ll be awarded to National Harbor. Rosecroft Raceway is also a possible site and its owner, Penn National Gaming, is eager to bid against MGM over the site.

However, odds are not in Rosecroft’s favor. The Baker administration will support the National Harbor bid as they believe it would generate more revenue because it would attract more people.

As a bit of leverage, Penn National has signed a two-year extension with Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association to keep alive harness racing at the facility only if Rosecroft is awarded a casino.

Neither Cloverleaf or Penn National officials responded to requests for comment, but Sharon Roberts, executive vice president of Cloverleaf said in a statement, “We are finally seeing our industry begin to thrive again and it would be terrible for the progress to end because a casino was placed at National Harbor.”

Despite the political wrangling Baker says he believes county residents want gaming at National Harbor. Baker is very optimistic that the referendum will be passed so that county residents will one day enjoy a MGM resort on the banks of the Potomac.

“I think people are looking at the overall prospects of bringing in revenues and creating anywhere up to 4,000 permanent jobs,” Baker said. “Overall, our numbers with the tracking we’re going informally; we have a great chance of passing it.


George Barnette

Special to the AFRO