MGM officials point out that they tailor their properties to the surroundings,… (Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit…)
It would rise over the Potomac like a spire. More than a casino, it would be a “luxury resort,” the dapper executive crowed, with a hotel tower designed as a “nod to some of the great monuments” in the region.
“In my mind, it will be elegant, it will be glowing, it will be a beacon, really,” the chairman and chief executive of MGM Resorts boasted at a recent breakfast meeting with about 100 business leaders in Prince George’s County.
Above all, the $800 million venue that Jim Murren envisions atop a hill at National Harbor — with a view of the Washington Monument — would be “luxurious,” a word he used repeatedly.
The architect would be world-class, he said, going through a PowerPoint presentation. The restaurants high-end. The spa fabulous. The shopping could include the likes of Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Fendi. As for the entertainment: Saturday night fights and Madonna, just like in Vegas.
At the same time, it would be “respectful” of the region. Nothing over the top, he promised. No dancing fountains like the Bellagio, one of MGM’s best-known properties on the strip. The message was clear well before Murren got to the final slide of his presentation:
“MGM WANTS TO BE IN MARYLAND.”
Pros and cons
In his sales pitch, Murren was as upbeat and relentless as a neon billboard, but his company’s hopes rest largely on whether Maryland voters approve Question 7 on Nov. 6. The ballot measure has the potential to change not only the region’s skyline but also the calculus for where tourists stay, where business groups hold conventions and where Washington lobbyists entertain.
If approved, the measure would allow Maryland’s five previously designated slots sites to offer table games, such as black jack and roulette. But an unprecedented, $72 million battle has centered on the other thing it would do: add a new gambling venue in Prince George’s County.
MGM is angling to open a casino there in 2016 that would draw regular gamblers who live and work in Washington and its suburbs. But company officials also see the casino as an added attraction for those who travel to the region for business or family vacations from across the country and around the globe. MGM says about 70 percent of its patrons would come from outside Maryland.
But is the Washington area ready for a Vegas-style casino?
Washington is, in many ways, the anti-Vegas: a serious, buttoned-down town, where a suit and tie is often very much part of the dress code and cabdrivers read the Economist. Washington wants to be known for history, not sin. What happens in Washington doesn’t stay in Washington; it ends up on the front page — or in the Congressional Record.
The developers of National Harbor, the 300-acre mini-city where the new casino would most likely land, see it as a natural fit for their property, which is anchored by the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center and has five other hotels, more than two dozen restaurants and close to 50 stores.
But some fear that it would bring crime, gambling addiction and all manner of other social ills. And they wonder how a casino would jibe with one of National Harbor’s soon-to-come attractions: the National Children’s Museum, which is scheduled to open in December.
“That’s not what we came here for,” said Carlo Patargo, from Mexico City, walking on a recent evening with his wife, Claudia, by Honest Abe’s Souvenirs in Northwest Washington. On the couple’s first trip to Washington, a casino would be the last thing on their minds, Patargo said. “The monuments, the museums, the White House — that’s our list.”
Gambling analysts, however, say National Harbor could be the most lucrative venue in the Mid-Atlantic region, drawing heavily from the District and Northern Virginia, where casino-styling gambling remains illegal.
MGM, which has been expanding its presence outside Las Vegas, believes that the Washington market would be perfect for a casino. So far, the company has poured nearly $30 million into the effort to urge Maryland voters to approve Question 7.
MGM officials are also careful to point out that they tailor their properties to the surroundings, offering their casino in Detroit as comparable to what Washington area residents could expect.
Still, one of the mottos of the MGM Grand Detroit is decidedly Vegas: “Where exciting nights turn into decadent mornings.”
Not just gambling
Inside the art-deco-style property on the edge of downtown Detroit, hotel guests lounged in a shared “living room” with modern stone sculptures and a 20-foot-long fireplace. Across the lobby, past a jovial security guard, three seniors were seated in the same bank of video poker machines.
“You’ve got a really hot machine!” one yelled to the luckiest of her friends.